In movie-world, South America exists only so white men can get lost in its jungles. Half the time, these explorers are motivated by greed, and are destined to go mad searching for entire cities made of gold. The other half is dedicated to those noble explorers who will find spiritual salvation by connecting to a primal spirit that can only be found in such a remote place. I can’t stop thinking about James Gray’s new movie The Lost City of Z since I saw it Thursday night. It is, again, the story of a white explorer who searches for a mythical city in the Amazon. It is Romantic, pragmatic, realistic, and fantastical all at the same time. It belongs -without a doubt- to this long list of movies about white explorers getting lost in the jungle, and yet, it is unlike any such movie I have ever seen.
Critics who love it -and there are many- are sure to point out how The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made any more. And they’re right. This is the type of old-fashioned adventure that Hollywood studios will be thoroughly uninterested in financing as long as superheroes and loud robots keep bringing cash the way they do. We’re talking about a movie filled with explorers, dangerous rivers, panthers, and cannibals. The kind of adventure movie that could’ve easily been made by a major Hollywood studio in the forties, fifties, or sixties. Had that been the case, though, the movie would’ve surely been of the kind that we now call “problematic”.
While those movies undoubtedly have their merits (and there are many), they are products of a different time. A time in which it was perfectly fine for Alec Guinness to play an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and nobody batted an eye at the grotesquely insensitive portrayal of African warriors in the movie Zulu. Later in history, when we started to feel bad about this sort of treatment, filmmakers went to the other extreme, portraying indigenous people as ridiculously noble, almost magical creatures that showed the white protagonists how to become his better self. Somewhere along the road it’s become clear that the best way to deal with these questions of representation is to allow for movies written, directed, and told from the perspective of the indigenous people (a good example would be the Australian film Ten Canoes).
That is not the kind of movie that James Gray wants to make, and that’s ok. Gray is often described as a classicist; a director interested in re-examining the perennial genres of American cinema. He’s given us his take on the New York cop drama (We Own the Night) and the American dream melodrama (The Immigrant), and now gives us his take on the white explorer movie. And it’s quite fascinating. He is undoubtedly more interested in the white protagonist than the indigenous characters he encounters, but the nuance with which Gray portrays the man’s adventure feels unprecedented. What’s more, he brings something to the movie that wouldn’t fly with any big studio, no matter the era. Something that exists beyond the story and scope of the movie. Something that cannot be understood, only felt. Something mysterious and moving.
Before you dismiss me as some sort of cheap guru, let me tell you what the movie is about. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by American journalist David Grann, which is in turn an exploration of the life of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, a real life English explorer who disappeared in the Amazon, as he was obsessed with finding a lost city he called, you guessed it, “Z”. As portrayed in the movie by Charlie Hunnam, Fawcett is a man with a mission as ambitious as his mustache. Born to an alcoholic father, Fawcett is determined to prove himself and climb the ladder of English high society. After embarking on a trip to map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil, however, he finds himself fascinated with the possible existence of an ancient civilization hidden deep in the jungle.
A lesser film might’ve portrayed Fawcett as a strictly noble character, but Gray’s portrayal is meticulously unsentimental. Fawcett’s motives for trying to find this ancient city aren’t nefarious. He is not searching after gold or riches, he wants to prove to the scientific establishment back in Britain that they have “underestimated the Indian”. Perhaps he sees himself in these Indians, dismissed as savages the way he’s dismissed for being the son of a drunk. Fawcett devotes his life to this quest, neglecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children (the oldest of which is played by new Spider-Man Tom Holland). He is a dreamer, but also an obsessive. When he goes off to fight in World War I he shelters himself from the horrors of war by clinging not to a picture of his wife or his kids, but of the jungle.
If you truly think about it, Fawcett is neither a hero nor a villain. He is a fascinating and engaging figure, but it’s as hard to fully root for him as it is to dismiss him as a colonialist. That’s one of the great virtues of Gray’s touch. Whenever he is given a choice in how to portray Fawcett, he chooses the more complicated option. For every moment in which Fawcett is ambushed by a hostile tribe and orders his men not to shoot but instead sing a song and attempt to make contact, there is a scene in which he has a conversation with his wife about how he considers her an equal, but don’t be ridiculous she can’t join him in his next trip the jungle is no place for a woman. The purpose of his quest is to point out the arrogant blindness of European scientists, but Fawcett has blind-spots of his own.
And while this meticulously calibrated -and rather distant- exploration of the character is happening, the movie is indulging in the kind of fabulous imagery that makes people fall in love with the magic of cinema. Cinematographer Darius Khondji turns the Amazon into a Romantic painting, with flickering torch-light, glowing rivers, and purple-red twilights. The score, by Christopher Spelman, is right out of a classic epic, with swelling strings and pounding drums. And the sound design, quiet and merciless, does as much as any other craft to convince us that this jungle is as much a real space as a figment of our imaginations. What is this place? It looks and sounds like nothing we’ve ever seen. Are we also explorers?
That’s the question that opened up the movie for me. I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching when I sat in the theater for The Lost City of Z, but thinking back on it I’ve come to realize the brilliance of Gray’s style. You wouldn’t expect it from a movie as elegant and restrained as this, but more so than any movie I’ve seen in quite a while, The Lost City of Z is an immersive experience. It is designed not to make us understand, but to make us feel the themes of the movie. This is most explicitly clear in the last section of the movie, when a final expedition finally has the world of Fawcett’s family life in England and his adventurer life in South America meet, and reality becomes a dream.
What exactly happens in those last fifteen minutes of movie? The real Fawcett disappeared in the jungles of Brazil in 1925, his movie equivalent fades out of the screen in a haze. He started out trying to better his station, then the jungle become something more. The myth he created for himself has become his own reality. But what does this mean? Is this a beautiful moment of rapture, or a tragic end to a fruitless mission the ramifications of which he couldn’t fully understand? Whatever it is, we cannot make sense of it, only feel it. That weird feeling of excitement that comes with a chill to the bone when you respond to a movie that you don’t quite understand.
In an interview with film critic Peter Labuza, James Gray talks about the importance of story in film saying: “Birth, life, death. We have to make sense of that cycle.” He’s talking about why telling stories is a fundamental aspect of film making. “Nobody is above story”, he says, and with Lost City of Z, he’s made a movie that embodies that mantra. He’s made one of those movies that are inexplicable. You watch them, and you feel like the filmmaker isn’t even sure of what exactly he’s trying to say, only that he had to say it. It’s a movie that feels bigger than itself, a movie that suggests there is something more.
I’m not even sure I like The Lost City of Z and I couldn’t care less. It feels beside the point. I’ve thought about the movie incessantly since I watched it, and I can’t wait to see it again. I can’t wait to think of twenty more interpretations, trying to figure out what the movie is trying to say. Even though I know, all twenty times, I will be wrong.