James Gray makes films like an explorer, digging for the details that define character and art. The Lost City of Z doesn't look like Gray's other movies. Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant mostly investigated the corners of his native New York. The Lost City of Z, set in Ireland, England and the Amazonian jungle at the start of the 20th Century, takes the Russian-Jewish Gray out of his comfort zone. His skilled screenplay, adapted from the 2009 book by David Gann, tells the story of Col. Percy Fawcett, a British officer who made his career and found his passion by exploring an unmapped region of Bolivia that he came to believe housed a lost civilization.
Joaquin Phoenix, Gray's acting muse and the star of four of his films, might have found the burgeoning mania in Fawcett. We'll never know. Instead, Gray has cast Charlie Hunnam, the British actor best known as the leader of a biker pack on the FX series Sons of Anarchy. Hunnam is slow to grab us as Fawcett, but the implosive force of his performance soon takes hold. Fawcett sees himself as an outsider, a soldier who's never seen action or had the chance to win medals. He's been, as one wag puts it, "rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors," referring to a father who was both a gambler and a drunk. The Royal Geographical Society gives Fawcett the opportunity to earn his stripes and glory for Mother England (protecting rubber barons in South America from pesky border wars) by facing a different kind of enemy: the unknown. Fawcett's pregnant wife, Nina (a soulful Sienna Miller), sees the dangers in her husband's two-year pilgrimage. But Fawcett is not giving up his shot.
That's the element that sparks the film as Fawcett sets off in 1906 on his first trek (they'll be three) in the company of Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattinson), an assistant who sticks with Fawcett even on the battlefields of World War I. Pattinson gives Costin a quirky edge that rubs just right against Hunnam's outer stiffness. As Fawcett and Costin head down river on a barge that attracts the curiosity of indigenous people, including cannibals – not to mention assaults with arrows and spears, plus attacks from piranhas and assorted jungle predators – The Lost City of Z (pronounced zed) thrums with exotic adventure, and the psychological terror that brushes Gray's metaphorical heart of darkness. Kudos to the great cinematographer Darius Khondji for the burning images he brought back from the Colombian jungle.
The contrast is notable when Fawcett returns to England, decried in some quarters and lionized in others. He earns his medals at last for his life-risking ambition. The famed Antarctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) joins Fawcett on his second trip. But it's the one who doesn't get to go who cuts deepest. Miller is superb as the pre-feminist wife, ever resentful of a cultural straightjacket that insists a woman's place is in home with no right to invade a man's world.
It's the family's eldest son, Jack (an impressive turn from new Spider-Man Tom Holland), who joins his father on a final trip in 1925 that will end in their still-unexplained disappearance. Gray doesn't try to match the visceral pow displayed by Francis Coppola in Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog in Aquirre: The Wrath of God. His tread is softer, more classical in form, but the impact is every bit as powerful. Everyone brings their A-game to Gray's haunting and visionary film, a potent provocation that gets under your skin, just as the El Dorado Fawcett imagined got under his. Just try to get it out of your dreams.