James Gray is the most underrated director in America. He continues to make gorgeous, moving dramas while working with big-name actors in some of their best performances. His previous four films (The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers, & The Immigrant) were all nominated for a Palme d’Or, giving him decent international clout, but in America his films have yet to receive an Oscar nomination.
And while there are multiple reasons for this, perhaps the biggest is that James Gray’s films aren’t contemporary, neither are they particularly historical in the sense that most award winning films use history. Instead, Gray makes films where his influences are films from the ‘70s, films made by New Hollywood giants like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and, in The Lost City of Z, New German Cinema’s Werner Herzog.
The real-life story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his quest to find an ancient city in the Amazon–a city they refer to as Zed–almost immediately evokes Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. But instead conquistador’s quest for a golden city or an entrepreneur’s absurd attempt to bring civilization through opera to the jungle, The Lost City of Z is about exploration for the sake of discovering lost civilization.
Herzog uses the Amazon as an exploration of madmen’s attempt to tame the untamable jungle and primitivism with misguided senses of colonization, The Lost City of Z examining how exploration of the Amazon is a chance to broaden human understanding and to see “primitives” not as uneducated inferiors, but the remnants of a once great civilization.
Here the natural world is simply a barrier to human survival. Percy’s army training comes across as more survival instinct that civilization turns into a sport, like when his opening hunt is mirrored later in a scene in the Amazon where he hunts again, but this time for survival as their food supplies are low. Yes, the conditions are harsh, but somehow the natives have found a way to live, some even showing early signs of agriculture.
Percy Fawcett’s drive to discover the city of Zed isn’t the obsessive ravings of a madman, but neither is it seen as an infallible, heroic pursuit. The film goes to lengths to show his times back in Ireland and the toll his years of exploration take on his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and eldest son Jack (Tom Holland). Pivotal scenes in the Amazon are interspersed of shots of Percy imagining his wife and children at home. Percy is weighed down by the gap he leaves in his family but his motivations are multiple and complex.
At first, his motivation lies entirely on his reputation as a man. An unadorned officer, he sees the first expedition as a chance to gain some clout and potentially reclaim his fallen family name. However, as the film progresses and other expeditions are made to find Zed, he’s pursuing proof, hoping to unravel this mystery and bring the truth to light. He seeks understanding, to truly come to grips with who these people were and what their history might reveal.
With each successive expedition, it is apparent that the story is too sprawling for the film’s two hour and 21 minute runtime. Certain stretches of the story aren’t given the room to breath and the last expedition is a blur compared to the lengthy first expedition. This is one of those rare films where a three plus hour director’s cut would be a delight.
A longer runtime would give the viewer more time with Darius Khondji’s vibrant cinematography, a gorgeous work of formalist filmmaking. Its structure and style emulates the cinematic texture of Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography in titles like Apocalypse Now and The Conformist. And the on location footage on the river in Colombia is a cinematic delight.
Great art is often timeless and The Lost City of Z is a film birthed in a timeless aura. His films are anachronistic anomalies in the landscape of modern American cinema. Nobody else still makes films like this. As long as Gray continues making films this way, it’s doubtful he will receive award recognition from home. Gray’s films aren’t in line with the ideology of the times. Likewise, his films aren’t interested in pleasing or placating audience members. But for those same reasons, he will likely continue with a global reputation as perhaps the last American filmmaker making New Hollywood films in the 21st century.
© James Blake Ewing 2017