The Lost City of Z (2017)

Directed by James Gray

The Lost City of Z is an adventure movie, but there’s not quite as much adventure as you’d expect.  It’s the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an explorer in the early 1900s who accepts a mission deep into the uncharted Amazon and soon becomes obsessed with finding a lost city which he called Zed, or Z.

You might expect, as I did, that once Percy is sent into the jungle, he will stay there throughout much of the story.  Instead he gets to his first destination rather quickly and with only one small skirmish which results in a tribe of archers impaling one of his crew before that same person falls into the river and is devoured by piranhas.  But a scene like that is to be expected.  I mean, every time there’s a group of people floating down a river in a jungle, one of them will be shot by an arrow before the rest of them realize what’s happened.  The same thing happened in 2005’s King Kong.  You have the group standing around, the scene’s a little too silent, and then bam, suddenly one of them has an arrow protruding from his chest, and now the arrows start flying, and the percussive score starts roaring.

But beyond that, Percy and his team get to their destination quickly, and in this deepest of locations in the Amazon, Percy finds shards of broken pottery, suggesting an intelligent civilization once lived there.  Upon his sudden return home to England (which really caught me off guard, I thought he’d remain stuck in the jungle), Percy advocates for a return to the jungle to find this “lost city.”

He faces plenty of opposition, however, as Percy’s claims that the “savages” might be their equals is a challenge to the white man’s long-held belief that he is top dog in these here parts.  In these scene Percy’s opposition is that gross, obnoxious, way too loud shouting white man you see in a lot of films about racism, the one who has to be really obnoxious to point out how wrong racism is, as if we needed convincing.

The goal of this section of the story is to show how passionate, determined and right Percy is.  Isn’t he a hero?  He’s of a time where people threw around the term “savages,” but he doesn’t buy into it.  What a guy, you know, what a stand up dude.  I rooted for him, so it worked, but it’s an easy trick to have your hero be ‘rootable’ simply because he or she holds beliefs we also hold but is surrounded by people who don’t share such a belief.

But then the film does an interesting thing.  Much is made of the struggle of Percy’s wife back home, having to wait for him to return and having to care for their children.  She tells him she wants to come with him to the Amazon, but Percy gets mad, telling her that her place is at home with the kids.  It’s a wonderful moment in the story, not for Percy’s character, but because it holds him accountable.  It shines a light on the complexity of Percy as a character in the movie.  He’s noble in regards to equality between men of different races, but he’s blind to his contradictory opinions on equality between men and women.

What I think I love most about this movie is that it’s slightly more than just an adventure movie.  You might expect a movie like this to not pack much of an emotional or thematic punch.  People go into a forrest looking for a thing, and they find it or they don’t.  The title alone evokes images of something more along the lines of Indiana Jones than anything regarding commentary on social paradigms, class relations, gender equality and man’s tendency to destroy.

And by the end, that’s what it does.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t know the true story about Percy Fawcett and didn’t even realize that this story was inspired by the true story of his search for a lost civilization, but I did anticipate a more plot-centric resolution.  Instead we’re told that Percy (and his son Jack who joined him for the third and final adventure) were never found.

We get a spiritual scene in which Percy and Jack are taken in by a tribe and take part in a ritual that seems as though it may end in their death.  This is the third encounter with a tribe in the amazon in the movie.  In the first one, the tribe fires arrows at them, killing one crew member, and in the second, the tribe welcomes them as guests (granted only after trying to kill them).  That second encounter, though, showed us that the tribe is cannibalistic.  This means that when Percy and Jack meet the tribe the third time, we don’t know if they will welcome them, kill them or do both.  Percy doesn’t make the unseen outcome any more discernible as he tells Jack something along the lines of, ‘whatever happens, it’s fate.’

Percy is a character who has given himself to this culture and, to an extend, the universe I suppose.  His journey started out as an attempt to clear his family name (his ancestors tarnished the Fawcett name it seems), and it ended with the death of pride and ego.  He’s one with something, I’m just not sure what that something is.

In Percy’s mind this means something, but to us it’s obsession and insanity.  He leaves behind a family that cares for him, multiple times, and the film reminds us of this.  It doesn’t end with Percy and Jack being carried away as part of the ritual, instead it ends with his grieving wife who, despite her insistence that they’re still alive, is clearly torn apart by the disappearance of her husband and first-born son so many years later.

The film celebrates Percy’s bravery and dreams, but it holds him in check, showing what he gave up to pursue it.  He’s not a simple hero, even if that’s what it might seem on the surface.  He’s much more complex, first shown in his contradictory opinions on equality, and even more so by his ability to simply abandon his family, forcing them to suffer while he runs off in the forrest, seemingly aware that he might never find what he’s searching for.

So the story is not about the “lost city,” but rather about one man’s obsession with that lost city.  It’s a long, detailed character study, one you don’t typically get of such characters.  Indiana Jones, for example, never really examined why Indy did what he did.  He was driven by a plot device, the Holy Grail, for example, whereas Percy Fawcett is driven by something much more internal.

This movie, I’d say, is terrific.  I only watched it because I had heard good things, but there’s something about early 1900s and jungles that doesn’t intrigue me.  Then when I saw Percy return home, knowing he will head back out at some point, I was drawn in.  The story isn’t about life in the jungle or at home, rather it’s about the in between.  What makes someone like Percy reject a beautiful life and family at home for a sweltering jungle where arrows could fly out of the trees at any moment and kill you?  Maybe this is what drives so many people who achieve great things.  The movie would seem to suggest that there is a separation between us and the people who become larger than life.  The perspectives of obsession in this movie feel similar to the views expressed in 2014’s Whiplash, a movie about the dark side of a seemingly innocent obsession.

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