MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Lost City of Z’ is a rattling exploratory wonder

Thanks to its gorgeous cinematography, rousing performances and powerful message, James Gray's explorer adventure is as haunting as it is enjoyable

| April 25, 2017

There’s something about a film that takes place in wilderness that I always seem to gravitate to and my theory on this is that myself being such an indoor person that the prospect of seeing a film about the vast wilderness is just as foreign and mystical to me as something as fantasy heavy as “The Lord of the Rings.” Still, movies like “Wild,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Wildlike,” “Backcountry,” “Embrace of the Serpent,” among others, have all rattled me by its organic sense of scope and setting that works really well in all of their respective atmospheric senses. Yet, “The Lost City of Z” didn’t initially take hold of me from its trailers, and its first reviews weren’t glowing, but as time went on, deep appreciation for this film was garnered and I became more and more interested, even if I still wasn’t enthralled.

But like time and time again, “The Lost City of Z” took hold of me from its organically beautiful atmosphere, but also from its classic feeling of a true adventure.

In 1906 Ireland, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a Major in the British Army tasked with leaving his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and family behind on a mission to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil through the Amazon rainforest. With the help of Henry Costin, a fellow explorer, Fawcett and him along the way discover evidence of a civilization predating that of Western civilization, which at the time was considered radical thinking. Over the next 20 years, Fawcett would return to South America two more times to search for what he calls “The Lost City of Z” (pronounced the English way as “The Lost City of Zed”), eventually bringing his son, Jack (Tom Holland) along for his last adventure.

“The Lost City of Z” is simultaneously complex and yet exceedingly simple, as the film never really ventures beyond a standard explorer film, but handles much of its material in a much quieter, moving way than ones before it. It could be argued that “The Lost City of Z” is a more mainstream version of “Embrace of the Serpent,” just in English, color and without all the existential, psychedelic elements that made the film so unique, but making this comparison seems to lessen “The Lost City of Z” into something that it isn’t. This is a deeply moving and effective film about the power of exploration when it’s done with a pure heart, without the craving for colonization.

Director James Gray has always done good work in film, but never has really taken hold as a serious contender when it comes to indie filmmaking. While I believe “The Immigrant” is so underrated solely to the awful treatment it was given by The Weinstein Company, “The Lost City of Z” seems to be the first film to truly place Gray on the map as a force to be reckoned with, rather than the director of that one movie you wanted to see but never came to your theater. There’s a certain meticulousness about Gray’s direction that isn’t seen in many modern movies these days, which gives “The Lost City of Z” a classic feeling that not many films get to say they have anymore. This feels like a film along the lines of “The African Queen” or even “Sorcerer” in its sense of exploratory wonder, one that is neither evil nor kind, but one of beauty.

Hunnam, while never being an actor one thinks of when they think of emotional subtlety, pulls off the role of Fawcett quite well, even if it is a bit “cookie-cutter hero” territory. While Hunnam is good, as well as Holland, it’s Miller and Pattinson that deliver the two most powerful performances in the film. The beauty in their performances, despite their differences, is that you don’t really think of Miller or Pattinson when you think of prestige actors sought out for a dramatic adventure with a lot of emotion. Though Miller plays a powerfully independent wife and Pattinson’s Costin is a lovable weirdo, they both find a great deal of depth in their unique mannerisms and characteristics that really set them apart.

At 141 minutes, “The Lost City of Z” would constitute itself as a “long film” by most standards. Surprisingly, despite its slow-moving sense of rhythm, moves at a fairly strenuous pace. Unlike most films, I looked down at the time during the film to find that almost double the time had passed than I had expected to, which really is quite wondrous in a film like this. “The Lost City of Z” manages to feel epic without that slogging feeling that many films extended runtimes like this can be. If anything, I would’ve loved to have seen this film go all out with a three hour runtime, but I can’t say that with a particularly clear conscience due to the film’s last half hour. During this time, the film’s pace actually slows down quite a bit to the point of a bit of dragging, but for what it’s worth, it doesn’t particularly harm the film as severely as you would expect it to.

If anything, most of my problems with “The Lost City of Z” stemmed in its last 30 minutes. While the film’s conclusion isn’t particularly abrupt by any means, it does feel a bit cut short, as if the slow buildup to this last mission is somehow underscored by a rushed sense of resolution. Without the presence of Pattinson’s Costin in the last mission, there seems to be a bit of a void in the exploration that Holland, try as he might, can’t completely fill. It’s this mixed with the final scene of the film that make the film not quite go out with the bang you might initially expect it to.

“The Lost City of Z” is a treasure trove for those looking for a classic film on the power of human exploration. It’s refreshing to see a film without malice in exploration, with a character solely interested in the history of the Earth and the lengths he will go to to discover it. With a director who seemingly knows this material inside and out, seeking to create a wholly unique, yet comfortably familiar experience for movie-govers, it’s hard to go wrong with “The Lost City of Z.” While the film does fizzle out quite a bit in its final half-hour, it’s hard to ignore the quite wonderful strides it makes in its first 3/4 that not only creates a beautifully absorbing atmosphere unlike any movie this season, but also in tune with human emotion in a way that one might not expect from something like this. If anything hurts “The Lost City of Z” most, it’s solely based in the fact that having seen “Embrace of the Serpent,” I wanted to see some drug trips go down.

4/5

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios (Bleecker Street)

Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero.
Runtime: 141 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language, and some nudity.
Now playing exclusively at AMC Concord Mills and Regal Park Terrace & Ballantyne Village.

Amazon Studios presents, in association with Mica Entertainment and Northern Ireland Screen, a Plan B Entertainment, Keep Your Head, Madriver Pictures production, in association with Sierra Pictures, a James Gray film, “The Lost City of Z”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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