Is there any Hollywood director working today with a bigger gap between cinephile regard and general public indifference? The films of James Gray aren’t often given a wide release, don’t get a push for Oscar season, and have shockingly low IMDb scores considering their caliber. But there are many cinephiles who will swear up and down that he’s one of American cinema’s greatest assets, with films like We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2008) as treasures too subtle for proper recognition.
The idea of classicism tends to figure into discussions of Gray’s work, and just for fun, I did a search of how often the word “old-fashioned” appeared in articles about his latest film, The Lost City of Z, in theaters now. I found results from the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Slate, IGN, IndieWire, and AllMovie before I decided I’d better get on with writing an article of my own. The use of the word is not wrong. But it raises the question of why the old-fashioned nature of Gray’s cinema seems to be a barrier for modern audiences, while movies like, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or La La Land (2016), which are much more explicitly built from the pieces of old art, manage to catch a kind of zeitgeist. The best answer I can give is that what’s old-fashioned in Gray is not so much an aesthetic but a philosophy, and one that’s devoid of pretensions towards self-conscious hipness or modern irony. So it’s satisfying that, when approaching The Lost City of Z, which is indeed old-fashioned, I can’t cleanly peg the movie as an emulation of another director. There’s a bit of Cimino, certainly—The Deer Hunter (1978) and the good parts of Heaven’s Gate (1980). Coppola, maybe? David Lean? The ghost of Michael Powell? But in the end, the film feels most of all like his, and his alone.
Any short plot summary of The Lost City of Z will tell you that it’s about an early 20th century explorer—Percy Fawcett, a real historical figure—on an obsessive upriver quest to find a rumored ancient city in the Amazon rainforest. This elevator pitch is only about 40% true, but it’s also the only specific information you should have when you enter the movie, so the film can slowly dawn on you as a carefully layered story about the passage of time, where moments from the beginning rhyme at the end, and where a wife you first thought might be a stock character turns out to have an arc of her own. The film is devoted to filling a CinemaScope frame and getting the proper effect from an epic runtime. It offers itself for comparison to Werner Herzog’s two trips to Amazonia, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The difference is that Gray’s hero doesn’t want to conquer the world but merely to understand it, which is an idea simultaneously less grand and more universal. Like Zodiac (2007), it is a case study in how to tell a “true story” when no one knows the ending. And there’s no better solution than to take that uncertainty into the real of symbolism and dreams.
So at the risk of angering Gray’s fans and confusing everyone else, I think it’s no insult to say that Gray’s strong suit here, as with his last film The Immigrant (2013), is not plot. Does he get his characters from A to B seamlessly? Does The Lost City of Z, for instance, truly sell the scene where Charlie Hunnam’s explorer goes instantly from being a cynic to a true believer in cities of gold after finding a broken pot next to a tree? Storytelling is by nature at least partly an act of salesmanship. But salesmanship is not an idea we associate with purity, and purity is Gray’s most old-fashioned aspiration. The most satisfying arcs in his films are thematic, emotional, and metaphorical—in other words, appreciating them requires a certain earnest belief that a film can arrive at simple moment, or a gorgeous image, or a look on a character’s face and still carry such a meaningful catharsis. And that’s an idea that, I fear, much of today’s moviegoing culture would be happy to roll its eyes at. (I remember once going with a friend to The 400 Blows (1959), and he didn’t see why the ending was anything more than a young boy standing on a beach). There are purely mechanical problems with The Lost City of Z. The dialogue often merely tells you its plot points or its character’s emotions without coming to life with the wit or vitality of a good wordsmith. A slightly thin set-piece on the battlefields of World War I shows that Gray’s skill set is not the same as Spielberg’s or, er, Mel Gibson’s. But it’s been 48 hours, and I keep thinking of how many different things The Lost City of Z is about. Its final shot still hasn’t left my mind.