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It’s a shame that the local distributor of The Lost City of Z seems to have unceremoniously dumped the film into our theaters without any support: no advertising, no fanfare, not even advance notice with trailers and the like. It’s a shame because, should any adventurous moviegoers happen to wander in to a screening, what they’d find is one of the best movies 2017 has seen thus far.

It tells the (true!) story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who becomes obsessed with finding evidence of a lost civilization in South America. Charlie Hunnam, in his best performance, plays the intrepid Captain keen on clearing the family name stained by his alcoholic father. The talented cast is rounded out by Robert Pattinson as his aide-de-camp Henry Costin, Sienna Miller as his wife Nancy, and Tom Holland as his son Jack.

Writer-director James Gray was not an obvious choice for this cinematic adaptation of David Grann’s book (as Gray himself would tell you). Gray’s oeuvre consists mostly of gritty urban dramas like We Own The Night and Two Lovers. But the left-field decision has paid off. He was able to find something in the material that resonated with him deeply and has meticulously put together a work that translates that resonance, that passion, not unlike Fawcett’s. It hearkens back to older films like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and other sprawling jungle exploration epics. Stories that depict man’s ambition, call to adventure, hubris, mettle, resolve, ingenuity, and overall will to persevere and discover.

To be honest, this is no light entertainment. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It’s 140 minutes long, but you can also see why every scene is there. Could it be shorter? Sure. Would it be a different film? Most likely. It’s a journey as a life, told over several years, three expeditions, one war. It exacts a toll on a family. It’s high-minded but not heavy-handed. It’s stately and purposeful, and knows what it wants to say about the complicated natures and impulses of men, even if that may not be easy to swallow for an audience that may be reeling from summer blockbuster fatigue. It’s not even so much the mortal danger that’s the question, though there is enough of that; it also delves into the costs of such ambition and drive: on time, on spirit, on family, on one’s mental state.

There are more than a few moments that leave quite an impression. One of the showcases is an opera in the middle of the jungle, an encounter with a rubber baron played by Franco Nero, calling to mind Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo. There’s a river attack by natives filmed with some first-person POV that might have you unconsciously dodging incoming arrows. The gorgeous photography of Darius Khondji (lately Woody Allen’s cinematographer of choice) gives the jungle lush colors, smoky light; you can almost feel the oppressive atmosphere. But the moments that will linger longest in the memory are those when Fawcett misses his family and sees them in his travels.

“Nothing will happen that is not destined,” says Fawcett to his son Jack. Who can tell what anyone’s destiny really is? There is only what you feel or wish that destiny to be, and the decision to fight or resist it. Maybe it’s an excuse. One area the film could’ve explored better was Fawcett’s reason for his obsession. We see the obsession, it’s depicted well, but the origin of his interests remains obscure. Not so Gray’s. The reasons he fell in love with this story are laid bare for us to see and enjoy for ourselves.

Photos from IMDB

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