From the amber-hazed aggression of an opening hunt to the haunting closing images that illustrate how a lust for exploration has consumed an entire bloodline, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z feels like David Lean on good-shit hallucinogens.
This is no romantic hagiography about Percy Fawcett’s jungle bravery. It’s a visually woozy, thematically textured, narratively patient, emotionally powerful and expertly existential El Dorado story of a nigh narcotic addiction to name-making, masculinity and legacy. Its characters may not necessarily die in the jungle, but they will lose their lives to it.
Subplots about the social subjugation of people and supplication before the church are elegantly interwoven. You’ve seen the “we’re the real savages” metaphor before, but rarely with so many masterful, microcosmic betrayals. The damp melancholy settles in like a rattle in the lung and nestles there — blanketed by obsession with only the briefest respite, as children come into Fawcett’s life with the transient nature of vagrants. Instead, the hum of madness, and the tinnitus of triumph and trails blazed continues to call.
Charlie Hunnam is still a man of many actorly limitations, but Fawcett is, in a way, a perfect outlet in which to channel his own superficiality and inferiority complex as a major Hollywood star. This is the sort of man bound to end up on a pike or a pyre, not a picturesque homestead.
Angus Macfadyen also turns in his best work in years as James Murray, a washed-up explorer similarly slaked by a thirst to prove he’s still useful — a patron who becomes a parasite when jungle dangers make it easier to pontificate rather than press forward.
Sienna Miller continues her run as perhapst he most underrated actress working today; as Percy’s wife, Nina, she expertly handles a moment when — years after her own pleas with Percy to join him — he insists his son join him on his latest expedition. It’s a decade-plus of regret in a stolen glance sideways toward the left, toward the past. This is the sort of performance you wish Clint Eastwood had allowed her to offer in American Sniper, rather than trapping her in Concerned-Wife-on-Phone territory, and one that you can tut-tut the Academy Awards for forgetting well in advance of the actual ceremony.
Robert Pattinson is also excellent, but he has been challenging himself in work like this for a while now; let’s stop pretending each new performance is any sort of revelation from a teenybopper star. Between this and Good Time, he has most decidedly earned the right for people to stop even mentioning that movie.
The World War I interlude is comparatively less interesting than the exploration but still necessary to illuminate Fawcett’s character, illustrate the ease with which men are trampled underfoot by nation-states and inspire an injury that sends Fawcett even deeper into the mausoleum of his own mind and seals his family’s fate forever.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp … or what’s a heaven for?” Gray’s film — his best yet — tackles the emotional anthropology in that quixotic question from all sides.