Many movies in the modern cinematic landscape consciously reference older films, but few so effectively evoke the feeling of forgotten forms of filmmaking as writer/director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. It’s an excellent example of neoclassical cinema, calling to mind high-water-mark works of filmmakers like David Lean, John Ford, Terrence Malick or Michael Cimino — and yet Gray borrows constructively, rather than reductively, from his cinematic antecedents. It’s at once an adventure epic on a grand scale and a character study of remarkable psychological intimacy, a film that wears its influences on its sleeve while simultaneously blazing its own trail. While Z may not fully attain the level of Ford or Lean, it’s certainly on par with Malick or Cimino — an inspired piece of work that tells a compelling story and still manages to stand on its own legs from a stylistic and aesthetic perspective.
An adaptation of author David Grann’s nonfiction best-seller, the film follows the true story of turn-of-the-century English explorer Percy Fawcett, a man who became so fixated on his discovery of a lost civilization in the Amazon that he eventually became lost there himself after numerous failed expeditions. And while knowing that things don’t end particularly well for Fawcett from a historical standpoint certainly influenced my reading of Gray’s film, it never once detracted from my engagement with his characters or narrative. It’s difficult to overstate what a mastery of technique such a trick requires, and the credit Gray deserves for pulling it off.
Fawcett’s decadeslong obsession with returning to the site of his lost city is the stuff of legend in alternative archaeology circles, not unlike Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy. But rather than fixate on the historicity of his protagonist’s quest, Gray uses its details as the canvas on which he paints a complex emotional portrait of a man driven by ambition and thwarted by a rigid class hierarchy. Watching Fawcett sacrifice relationships with this wife and children so that he can give them a more respectable station among the English aristocracy, one gets the sense that Gray is less concerned with the more obviously salacious details of gilded cities in the jungle or cannibalistic tribes than he is with the cultural cannibalism of the upper-crust Brits Fawcett is simultaneously trying to escape and appease.
The development hell that plagued Gray’s Z may not be as pronounced as the physical torment endured by its protagonist, but it doesn’t miss the mark by much. There can be little mystery as to why that’s the case, as the film will prove a hard sell to most casual moviegoers — those looking for an Indiana Jones proxy will come away perplexed and frustrated. Z was initially conceived as a starring vehicle for Brad Pitt, who pulled out due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who eventually did the same. While Pitt’s production company, Plan B, continued to shepherd the film, the lead role was eventually taken on by “Plan C,” Charlie Hunnam. And while he may not have been the first choice, Hunnam’s performance as Percy Foster is undeniably first-rate. He embodies the role so thoroughly that it’s almost impossible to imagine Pitt or Cumberbatch having been able to fill the shoes quite as admirably.
Gray has delivered something that’s, sadly, become remarkable in this day and age — a film with stellar performances from a top-notch cast, a script that avoids cheap-and-easy emotional beats in favor of nuance and subtlety, and a visual aesthetic that not only suits its subject but also calls to mind some of the greatest achievements of film form. In short, it’s a film with something to say that respects its audience’s intelligence enough not to beat them over the head with it. That it also proves to be pretty damned entertaining for most of its (admittedly lengthy) running time places it in rare company. Only time will tell where it will ultimately fall in the context of the best films of 2017, but so far, it’s definitely on my short list. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.