James Gray makes films that are now considered “throwbacks” which is part of the reason why he’s yet to have a true break-out box-office hit with general audiences. It also doesn’t help that distribution problems have plagued more than one of his efforts, and let’s be honest, in this lowest common denominator movie marketplace that we find ourselves in, CGI-free pieces of filmmaking that skew towards adults and not infants like The Immigrant, Two Lovers, and his newest and by far most expansive achievement, The Lost City of Z, aren’t exactly what the studios have in mind. Which is a shame, because film after film, Gray has impressed me with his ability to tell morally complex stories with a true sense of filmic beauty, and he’s become one of my favorite filmmakers over the last 20 years. His debut was the ridiculously confident Little Odessa in 1994, which he followed up with the one-two crime-movie punch of The Yards (tragically underrated) and the 80’s policier We Own The Night. But with The Lost City of Z, Gray has stepped outside of his NYC milieu, and has crafted a visually bold and ultimately haunting story of exploration, family, and potential madness. I was in complete awe of this film, and I could have watched another hour of material had Gray been inclined to present it.
Charlie Hunnam is very commanding as Percy Fawcett, a British artillery officer in the early 1900’s who was drafted by the Royal Geographical Society to trek into the Amazon in order to create a map that would establish the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Once there, he became obsessed with finding an ancient city described to him by local indigenous tribes, which would later in time be named as El Dorado. With piqued personal interest and strong support from his wife, superbly played by the now invaluable Sienna Miller, Fawcett would return to the jungle on seven separate occasions (the film condenses to three), and would famously not return home after his final journey. These events were chronicled in the book The Lost City of Z by journalist David Grann, and Gray, in adapting the material for the screen, has fashioned an old-timey adventure picture in the vein of a David Lean epic, with shades of Herzog and Coppola thrown in for contemporary flavor. The supporting cast includes a plethora of strong performances from a bearded Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Edward Ashely, the great Angus MacFayden (despicably sloppy!), Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis, and a smartly cast Franco Nero as a pivotal character in the film’s narrative.
The photography in The Lost City of Z is undeniably astonishing. Shot on 35mm film in 2.35:1 widescreen by master cinematographer Dariusz Khondji, re-teaming with Gray after The Immigrant and with previous credits including Seven, Evita, and Stealing Beauty, there’s a glorious richness to every single image in this movie that left me slack-jawed in numerous spots. Blacks are super-inky, the jungle’s natural light is captured in a casually graceful manner, and sequences shot in Europe have a just-rained freshness that feels tangible, with a bold yet ornate sense of color on display all throughout. Christopher Spellman’s riveting musical score hits so many phenomenal sonic notes that it’s tough to list them in a review; this is easily one of the more memorable and impressionistic film scores I’ve heard in years. The evocative and impressively varied production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos is the stuff that awards are made of; everything feels real in this movie. The two hour and twenty minute run time was perfectly paced by Gray and editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, allowing for a more layered experience by fleshing out Miller’s character, instead of just giving us the rote wife role. It’s wild to think that this super-expensive looking film was financially cobbled together by multiple independent investors, with Amazon Studios doing a low-key theatrical release in the head-scratching month of late April. I was overwhelmed by this epic yet intimate tale and as a relatively new father, I found the final stretches to be singularly creepy and emotionally disturbing. This is easily my favorite film of the year out of the eight movies I’ve seen, and I wish I could see it again on the big screen.