The Lost City of Z: Getting Lost in Obsession

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Into the jungle, Percy Fawcett went; into the serpentine greenery of the Amazon, below the natural strobe of light fighting against the leaves, the tangles of branches that umbrella secrets, that camouflage the infinite perils and (Percy hopes) hidden cities, ancient and plated with gold. He ventures along a waterway riddled with anonymous, lifeless bodies — outsiders who never met the river’s end but, like him, dared to endeavor. Lost in the periphery, something else haunts. Beyond the bush, from which deadly arrows and spears whistle through the air, beyond the natives — some of them cannibals — there are, among the unseen, apparitions of those who followed deadly trails so deep they either could not find their way back or came to realize they did not want to.

These apparitions do not appear to nor are they imagined by any character in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. I conjured them up myself. A film so rich in theme and so beautifully crafted can’t help but plague the mind with questions: how many men like Percy Fawcett walked into the Amazon and faced, finally, their own mortality? How many others searched for treasures and failed and died awful deaths? How many failed but survived and swore off the bush forever? And how many came to realize it was not the treasures they sought, but the addiction to their own ambitions? Or to danger? How many of those mutated these addictions to suffering, to getting lost, to testing their own abilities to survive?

These are some of the questions I couldn’t help but consider during this tale of exploration by way of obsession. The movie is slow-paced and there are no major set pieces, but it is nonetheless absorbing. I’ve already seen it multiple times. I’m fascinated by The Lost City of Z in ways I cannot properly communicate. This may already be obvious. I can lean on the past, however. It recalls Lawrence of Arabia and Zodiac in the way it examines ambition, obsession and the resulting self-destructive behavior when these obsessions are unchecked. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is exquisite. In more civilized quarters, Khondji’s light is spare. It is only through lighter shades of shadow that we see our leads’ faces at all, and it is only off the edge of their forms that light is stark. In shooting the jungle, the Amazon’s allure and promise is assisted through golden hues and lush greens. If I could sum up the visual look of the film in one word?

Chartreuse.

Property of Amazon Studios

I’ve seen Charlie Hunnam in a number of films now, but I have never seen a filmmaker figure out how to effectively use his obvious talents as thoroughly as Gray seems to do here. Major talents — Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, no less — were originally attached to the lead role. I do not miss them. The rest of the cast, including Robert Pattinson (whom I barely recognized) are uniformly excellent.

I sometimes find James Gray’s films a little dull but there are so many interesting intersections in The Lost City of Z, I’m tempted to revisit his entire filmography. When mentioning other films of influence, I failed to mention Michael Mann’s Heat, in which one character — who must decide whether or not to proceed into a dangerous undertaking — responds, “For me, the action is the juice. I’m in.” By the time The Lost City of Z enters its final reel, it is clear Fawcett is earnest in his desire to find his very own Machu Picchu, but this only masks the rush he feels journeying off the beaten path and into dangerous terrain. It isn’t the kill ultimately, it’s the hunt.

Gray’s film observes some of the fallout from these obsessions. Fawcett is portrayed as a progressive when it comes to the rights of women. How quickly these ideals sour when they stand between the man and “the hunt”. When Nina Fawcett, Percy’s feminist wife (Sienna Miller), dares to ask when she might be able to pursue her own goals in the wake of his absenteeism, his response is that of a Neanderthal. Nina is trapped and can only lay witness as her husband’s obsessions are transferred to her eldest son (Tom Holland). She is nonetheless supportive, being of the belief that one should be able to do what one wishes with their life, even if this rule does not seem to apply to her and her gender.

There is more emotional ransom that results from Percy’s actions. The source of their son’s obsession with “Amazonia” differs from the father’s. Percy is an ambitious soldier for the Queen. He seeks the sort of respect his father’s name could not grant him. And lacking a war (at least at the start of the film), this also meant he lacked medals of recognition; opportunities to elevate himself. His son, Jack, wants to brave the Amazon, but the source of this obsession is, at heart, the opportunity to bond with his father and to give meaning to an adolescence devoid of paternal love. Meanwhile, Nina’s approval is not only idealistic, but maternal. After some familial hardship, it’s important to her to see the two men bond.

Spoilers ahead.

Gray’s previous effort, The Immigrant, was a very good film with a brilliant last shot. The Lost City of Z continues the tradition. Percy and his son Jack have, by the film’s conclusion, been missing for many years. Nina, however, has not been able to let them go. Her obsession with their whereabouts is understandable, fed by hope and evidence just credible enough to keep that hope burning well beyond an outsider’s reason. We know from the film’s brilliant last shot this is not a passive hope by Nina. She too has become lost in sprinkled shadows of the jungle. Dead or alive, Z consumed her husband and son. So it will consume her, only she doesn’t need to leave the continent to share their fate.

Similarly, there is something about Gray’s jungle that keeps calling me back. I can’t quite get it out of my head. I have no desire to either. I want to drink the whole film in again and again. Like Nina, I want to believe Percy and Jack lived. I want to obsess over what may have become of them — how they might have abandoned civilization for a self-actualization few have encountered. I want to think about how selfish this is to those who loved them and also how relatable it may be. This is a film grander than the sum of its parts and if it infects you the way it infected me, I suppose you will be as grateful and obsessive a viewer as I have become. When they are so effectively portrayed, these obsessions are viral and no celluloid or digital platform may contain them.

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