The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann opens in one of the most exhilarating fashions I have ever seen a non-fiction book open. It continues on its tale of deadly adventures, thrilling escapes and obsessive personalities until it reaches an ultimately anticlimactic close (which to be fair was the only way it could have ended thanks to its real life constraints). Recently, director James Gray adapted the novel into a film of his own. While the film is ultimately a very different approach on only some of the material of the book, it ultimately suffers from the same problem as the source material. A sour third act is the one thing that ends up preventing this film from being something special.
The Lost City of Z follows the life of South American adventurer Percy Fawcett (portrayed by Charlie Hunnam) as he discovers evidence of an advanced civilization deep in the Amazonian jungle. The search for this advanced civilization, which he proclaims as “Zed”, becomes his obsession as his adventures entangle a loyal service friend (Robert Pattinson), a famed Antarctic explorer (Angus Macfayden) and his family (Sienna Miller and Tom Holland). The plot ultimately ends up being a typical biopic plot, which is odd considering that the plot of the book is anything but as it sprawls between different eras and different characters. However, under the direction of James Gray this never feels like a biopic and much more of a cinematic portrayal of obsession.
James Gray’s direction is the real hero of this film as this film further establishes the interesting directorial niche he has created in which he gets away with visually stunning imagery surrounding a quiet portrayal of subtle but lifelike characters. It is clear that Gray goes out of his way to film on location in many scenes, and he has no problem handling the fact that a lot of the plot depends on the imagery that he is able to conjure up (including a final shot that might be his best yet).
However, if James Gray, the director, is the hero of this film, than James Gray, the writer, sometimes acts as its antagonist. The reason why the first couple of acts of this film work so well is because Gray presents a sprawling narrative that keeps on linking back to this core idea of obsession. In the final act, however, Percy’s son Jack becomes a much more prominent character. Thanks to a poor performance from the miscast Tom Holland and some un-honed writing on the part of Gray, his inclusion feels like he is from a completely different movie. There is no doubt that the film tries to show the obsession that is growing within Jack as well, but the film slowly becomes a film about the relationships between father and sons rather than the fascinating tale of obsession that had been and showed have continued to be.
The Lost City of Z is a visually stunning film that presents a style of filmmaking that we don’t see too often anymore. While the film presents many entertaining ideas and themes, the film ultimately meanders a little too much in its final act.