Director James Gray’s masterful The Lost City of Z is the kind of old-fashioned, methodical, vibrant epic that Hollywood used to be famous for making. It’s reminiscent of classic adventures helmed by John Huston, Francis Ford Coppola, and Werner Herzog, each of whom traversed his own heart of darkness to deliver gripping yarns about heroism, obsession, and madness.
The movie begins in 1905 Ireland, where an undecorated major named Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is desperate to distinguish himself and escape from the shadow of his disreputable father. As one contemporary bluntly puts it, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” His chance finally arrives when he’s summoned to the Royal Geographical Society in London, where he once proved useful as a top-notch mapmaker. He’s charged with leading an expedition to South America to map the disputed border between Brazil and Bolivia, which requires that he locate the source of the Rio Verde. The proposed two-year mission means Fawcett must leave behind his supportive, pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his young son Jack, but he eagerly accepts the opportunity because he believes it will allow him to redeem his family name.
Fawcett is accompanied on his journey by aide-de-camp Henry Costin (a never-better Robert Pattinson) and a small entourage of guides and stewards. Before they embark up river, one craggy codger warns them that “ain’t nobody comes back from up there—ever.” Soon enough, the band of explorers learn just how harsh the river and jungle can be: They encounter hostile, arrow-shooting natives, sharp-toothed piranhas, venomous snakes, and gut-ravaging diseases. But Fawcett is determined and refuses to turn back, regardless of the obstacles. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” he states, so he soldiers on and discovers more than he ever expected when he stumbles upon some broken pottery and other artifacts that hint at an ancient civilization—one previously unknown. When he returns to England, he’s hailed a hero. However, when he suggests the possible existence of a lost city in the Amazon, which he refers to as Zed, he’s nearly laughed out of the geographical society. How could savages build a city and create works of art? But Fawcett is undeterred, and believes destiny awaits him.
Suffice it to say that Fawcett does indeed return to Amazonia, more than once, and continues his quest. But at what cost? His children barely know him and his wife grows weary of being a single parent. James Gray’s focus on the Fawcett family dynamic yields some of the film’s richest scenes: Miller is nothing short of sensational, as is Hunnam in a breakout role. Gray, who adapted the movie from David Grann’s non-fiction book, smartly condenses the story and makes the yarn more intimate, yet the tale loses none of its epic scope—it even includes a horrifying depiction of the brutal 1916 Battle of the Somme during World War I, in which Fawcett fought. The director should also be commended for shooting on 35 mm film, which gives The Lost City of Z a breathtaking, eerie beauty that lures viewers into the hellish yet intoxicating jungle, and helps us realize, in part, why Fawcett became so obsessed with it.
Fawcett purportedly served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and it’s easy to see why. But viewers expecting a rip-roaring, Raiders-like yarn will be sorely disappointed. The Lost City of Z is more thoughtful and contemplative, yet it remains just as gripping as any larger-than-life adventure flick. This is filmmaking of the highest order.