What drives a man to the ends of Earth, not just once but many times over, in a brave but dubious attempt to solve a centuries-old mystery? Is it even possible to know or understand, especially when that man has a loving wife and growing children at home?
With The Lost City of Z, director James Gray offers his own conclusive answer to a query that, while hardly new, can be thoroughly engrossing. And that answer is: we can't really know - not us normal folk - we can only kind of imagine. It's a wonderful, challenging thing to imagine, and, well, this is why movies exist. - to take us, for a few hours, somewhere we could never otherwise go.
Based off a bestselling book, The Lost City of Z is based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, a British military officer who, over the course of repeated trips to the region, becomes obsessed with finding a Machu Picchu-esque lost city in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon.
Charlie Hunnam inhabits the enigmatic Fawcett, and he is a shrewd choice for the arc Gray follows. Fawcett is a man who kind of has it all, and Hunnam's rugged good looks and cool demeanor are the cherry on top as he alternates between hacking through the rainforest and raising a family with his adoring, forward-thinking wife, played by Sienna Miller.
Oh, Fawcett, passed over for promotions and decorations in the military because of a disgraced family name, has hit a bit of a professional ceiling at the outset of the film. But his first trip to the Amazon, though it does not end with him finding his "Lost City," does earn him the kind of glory and celebrity that cancels out those frustrations and would satiate most people.
Gray seems to deliberately evoke Apocalypse Now in depicting Fawcett's journey deep in to the Amazon as one of eerie solitude punctuated by moments of violence and natural terror. It's a fever trance to follow Fawcett and his ever-present companion, the drunken, scruffy Mr. Costin, played by an unrecognizable (and terrific) Robert Pattinson, down the river. It's uncomfortable. It's sweaty. It's terrifying.
And yet it's also kind of irresistible.
Perhaps we can get closer to Fawcett's mindset than we think.
Each time the fever breaks and Fawcett returns home to England, it becomes harder to understand rationally why he would want to go back. There is the extreme danger he faces in Bolivia, to be sure - and no matter how many times he returns, there is no taming this kind of wild. But there is also his family - his eminently likable wife, two sons who crave his attention, eventually a daughter as well. The logical part of your brain spends much of the film mentally excoriating Fawcett for going back again and again. But there's another part in there that desperately wants him to return, and not because the home-life stuff feels token or because it's fun to watch him and his compatriots battle disease and dodge poisonous darts.
This, I suspect, is what Gray was going for, and it's quite a profound mood he is able to get you in. There is no great speech by Hunnam that ever summarizes his motivations in a neat little bow. He wants to find his "Lost City," sure, but there's something more primal running underneath the whole time.
We're not meant to verbalize it, just to attempt to understand it. I am under no illusion that I share even a shred of the mettle Fawcett had. For a few hours, I think I was able to understand it, though, and that's quite an achievement by Gray and company.