“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
James Gray has carved a singular path for himself, remaining just on the edges of Hollywood. He has made consistently excellent films, often with major stars, but they are the type of films that never truly break into the mainstream consciousness. It’s frustrating to see his work slip into obscurity, but there’s also an admirable quality to it. “In a sense what you’re trying to do is fight for the medium,” Gray told The Daily Beast. “If you spend your entire time obsessed with this idea of a certain kind of cinema, then I think it’s worth fighting for. Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it’s so not in vogue and nobody cares or wants it, and then you’re trying to force-feed something that the system can’t accommodate. But on the other hand, what’s the alternative—that you give up, or sell out?”
Gray’s latest is the gorgeous and haunting The Lost City of Z, which is now on Blu-ray from Broad Green Pictures. Based on the book by David Grann, it tells the true story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who spent his life searching for an unknown civilization somewhere in the Amazon. Like Gray and his approach to his films, Fawcett is obsessed with his quest; a quest worth fighting — and even dying — for. Fawcett is played by Charlie Hunnam, who is often slightly wooden in other roles but here has found the perfect showcase for his talents. Hunnam flourishes in the part, bringing a noble intensity to Fawcett.
Unlike similar films that have characters who venture into the jungle — Fitzcarraldo, Apocalypse Now — The Lost City Of Z doesn’t spend all its time in the wilderness. Interestingly enough, Fawcett and his fellow explorers, including frequent Henry Costin (a wonderfully subdued Robert Pattinson) return back to civilization again and again. Yet the jungle calls, and so does Z (or Zed as all the characters call it, in a proper British manner). Other explorers chide Fawcett — he has no real proof of Z, and his quest seems downright quixotic. Yet Fawcett never gives up his belief that it’s out there, waiting for him to claim it.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji shoots the film in lush greens and smoky, dreamy hazes, resulting in scene after scene of gorgeous cinematography. Gray’s direction switches from tight close-ups on sweaty, dirty faces to wide vistas of expanding, inviting yet dangerous jungle. It’s one hell of a good looking film. “There’s a way to achieve a sort of painterly look—there’s a lot of funky stuff you have to do,” Gray told Film Comment. “First, it helps to shoot on film, because the grain adds almost a paintbrush stroke. There’s a naturalness to the face tones and the flesh tones—it’s a much more painterly medium than digital.”
While many filmmakers would feel a need to inject more action beats into a film like this, Gray is content to let the film flow off in its own directions, like the current of the rivers the characters often find themselves on — sometimes the journey is peaceful, sometimes treacherous. But it is always unique. “A movie can’t ramble,” Gray said in an interview with The Telegraph. “Movies are like dreams, and there’s something about a tragedy, in movie form, that is almost too much for the audience to take. So what you try to do is bitter and sweet. You try to master something that has both levels working at the same time. It’s a very difficult thing to do, and there are very few perfect endings, but they always have both things operating. And if you can make a film where there’s something tragic and also something beautiful, transcendent, then you’ve really won.”
The Lost City Of Z is available on Digital HD, Blu-ray™/DVD Combo Pack, Blu-ray, DVD and VOD on July 11. The bonus material included on all formats (except VOD) include feature film commentary by Director James Gray and three featurettes: “Adventure in the Jungle,” “From Novel to Screen,” and “Expedition Journal.”