Until now, the films of James Gray, who was born in Queens in 1969, have stayed close to home. His début feature, “Little Odessa” (1994), was set in Brighton Beach. “The Yards” (2000), which confounded everything you’ve heard about the curse of the sophomore work, was more adventurous, travelling as far as the Bronx, but the third film, “We Own the Night” (2007), kicked off in Brooklyn, once again, and could hardly tear itself away. Nor could the agonized “Two Lovers” (2008). It was not until “The Immigrant” (2013) that Gray spread his wings and took flight. He made it all the way to the Lower East Side.
By any standard, therefore, his latest movie, “The Lost City of Z,” comes as a shock. Admirers of Gray (a select but ardent bunch), upon learning that he was busy filming in the jungle, will have said to themselves, “Hmm, the Bronx Zoo. Interesting choice.” Little did they know. The jungle in question is the real deal: steamy, infested, and perilously short of good delis. Much of the story unfolds in the depths of Amazonia; other locations include Ireland, London, and the English countryside. What’s going on? If Gray continues like this, his next project will be shot in Alpha Centauri.
The hero is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier who journeyed up the Amazon at the start of the twentieth century and, like other questing souls before and since, became obsessed. He was convinced that the remains of a forgotten civilization lay concealed in the rain forest, and it is generally assumed that he lost his life in pursuit of that belief; he and his eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), were last seen venturing into the jungle in 1925. Fawcett’s exploits were described by David Grann in this magazine in 2005 and subsequently in his book “The Lost City of Z” (2009). Gray has borrowed the title, and he dramatizes many of the episodes to which Grann and other writers have referred. Yet the movie that results should not be combed for historical truth. It is best approached, I would say, as a fantasia on Fawcettian themes.
We first encounter Fawcett, suitably enough, on another hunt—on horseback, racing across the Irish countryside on the trail of a stag. Here, as in a later scene at the Battle of the Somme, Gray shows himself to be a master of the moral sketch: a burst of decisive visual gestures that give us the character of a person. We gather at once that Fawcett is bold, impatient, and chafed by recklessness. He lusts for glory, but only his own, and a mass of wounded feelings is encased in his tough hide. A dull run of military postings has left him with no medals. Worse still, he has been, as someone remarks, “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” His father was a gambler and a drunk, and Percy must redeem the family name. Summoned to the Royal Geographical Society, and asked to survey an unmapped region of Bolivia, he says, “I was rather hoping for a position where I might see a fair bit of action.”
He need have no worries on that score. It is not long before arrows are thrumming toward him from the banks of the Amazon, fired by the indigenous people into whose land he and his men have drifted. Still to come: white-water rapids, an inquisitive panther, and a surprisingly cheerful sojourn with practitioners of cannibalism. Does this fair bit of action, however, mean that “The Lost City of Z” counts as an action movie? It seems more like a study in restlessness. Fawcett went to the Amazon eight times. For the purposes of the film, these have been compacted to three, and what excites Gray’s imagination is the clash—or, stranger still, the momentary merger—between distant cultures. Whichever continent we are in, we sense the gravitational pull of another. When Fawcett returns after one expedition, the front of his English house is wreathed in creepers, as if the tendrils of vines had spread across the sea. He stands in the shadows of his hallway, and something gleams behind him—the leaflike blade of a spear.
That image is purest Gray, and it heeds a guiding principle of his work: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, though not for want of trying. Hence the start of the new film, when a black screen is relieved by a patch of flickering flame. Hence, too, a board meeting of the Royal Geographical Society: prosaic stuff, except that these crusty Edwardian gentlemen, couched in Gray’s menacing murk, remind you of the mobsters and the City Hall scumbags who populate “The Yards.” Everywhere you look is jungle, and it’s both fitting and pitiful that what Fawcett picks up near the Amazon, and brandishes back in London as evidence of his theories, is not the bright gold of Eldorado but a handful of broken pots, the color of old earth.
Z, for him as for other explorers, is what you dream it to be, and Fawcett, in turn, is open to transformation. Well before his vanishing, legend coiled around him; his reports and speculations may have prompted his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write “The Lost World” (1912), the precursor of “Jurassic Park.” You could equally frame Fawcett as desperate, deluded, and ill-prepared. Some of that bitter comedy clings to the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” (1934), who heads haplessly into the rain forest and never comes back. Humor, though, is not Gray’s forte, and his Fawcett is a sturdy and somewhat monotonous creature, who, for all the strivings of Charlie Hunnam, does not consume us. “We shall not fail,” he declares, pompously and—as it turns out—inaccurately. “Mankind awaits our discoveries.”
The irony is that the right person for the role is, for much of the movie, standing beside him. Robert Pattinson, looking a bit like Edward Lear, with little spectacles and an uncharted wilderness of beard, plays Henry Costin, who accompanies Fawcett on his initial trip, in 1906, and stays with him through the First World War. (In fact, the two men did not meet until 1910, nor did they fight together at the front. The Costin in the film is a composite.) Pattinson cuts an unlikely figure, yet you follow his every move, and, from the instant at which he laughs at a snake on the forest floor, you wonder what compels him. Unlike Hunnam, he hints at mysteries held in reserve, as does Sienna Miller, who plays Fawcett’s wife, Nina—calmer and cleverer than him, and eager to escort him on his journeys, but kept at home by the dictates of an age more nervous of women’s equality than of Amazonian tribes. In a gorgeous sequence that concludes the film, she descends a staircase toward a large mirror, in which is reflected the rich and writhing green of the jungle. Her mind is elsewhere, still in search of her husband.
Gray is hampered, to an extent, by treading in the tracks of Werner Herzog, who went to South America with Klaus Kinski, his leading man (or, as Herzog calls him, “my best fiend”), and returned with the extraordinary “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982). The raft on which Fawcett, Costin, and their comrades glide along the river, with piranhas lurking below and hoping for human flesh, is a mere vessel, whereas the raft on which Kinski lurches at the end of “Aguirre,” ranting to himself of unceasing conquest, with a dead daughter and a seething mob of monkeys, feels like the end of everything. “The Lost City of Z” is beautiful, mournful, and measured. But the tale that it tells cries out for madness.
How good an actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger? All power to the magnitude of his stardom, the monumental heft of his presence onscreen, and the assurance with which he staked out his limits and labored so mightily within them. But what happens when he dares to step outside them? There were hints of that experiment as far back as “True Lies” (1994), and they resurfaced in “Maggie” (2015), in which he was seen to weep. Gone is the time when the tears of a Terminator, like an alien’s blood, might have burned through metal floors.
In Elliott Lester’s “Aftermath,” Schwarzenegger plays Roman Melnyk, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and works in construction. One evening, he goes to the airport to greet his wife and their pregnant daughter. But the plane is involved in a midair collision; all two hundred and seventy-one people on board the aircraft are killed. Lester winds back and retells the story of that night from the viewpoint of Jacob (Scoot McNairy), the air-traffic controller whose error, compounded by a phone glitch, caused the crash.
The first third of “Aftermath” is stripped to emotional basics (one man seized up with grief, another with guilt), and it delivers quite a jolt. Sadly, as the characters converge, the rest of the movie loses force; it slackens and then rushes, and the time frames feel out of joint. Still, you are left with the fascinating spectacle of a revenge drama in which Schwarzenegger is slow to wrath, and with the lingering ghosts of blockbusters past. As he lumbers toward a slimy lawyer, who is offering a compensation deal, everything in you wants to shout, “Go on, Arnie! Toss him through a wall!” Whereupon Roman whips out not a shotgun but a photograph of his loved ones. All he really wants is an apology. ♦
Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993. He is the author of “Nobody’s Perfect.”
De THE NEW YORKER, 17/04/2017
Ilustración de Wesley Allsbrook