Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: You don’t have to go to the theater to get your Robert Pattinson fix. We’re looking back on some of the best performances from the one-time vampire, future caped crusader.
The first time you see Robert Pattinson in James Gray’s masterful The Lost City Of Z, you might not even realize you’re watching him. Onboard steam ship the S.S. Panama in 1906, the film’s protagonist, Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), is journeying to Brazil on behalf of the British government. An officer and nobleman stuck in the galley, bunking alongside roughnecks ready to steal from him at the slightest lapse in his guard, Fawcett is understandably on high alert. So when someone starts following him deep into the ship’s bowels after nearly a week, Fawcett assumes the worst, lies in wait, and throws the man to the ground while pointing a gun at his head. The stranger turns out to be Henry Costin (Pattison), who replied to his ad in the Times for an aide-de-camp. Wondering why Costin waited so long into the trip before seeking him out, Fawcett gives him a sniff. “Are you drunk?” Costin’s reply: “No... well, I might’ve had a little.” As introductions go, it’s hardly propitious.
But the character—and actor playing him—soon prove their worth. Based on David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction book of the same name (though heavily reworked), Gray’s near-mythological narrative recounts the life’s work of Fawcett, a British geographer and explorer, as he spent decades searching for “Z,” a fabled lost city in the Amazon. After his and Costin’s initial successful mapping expedition unearths some ancient pottery and stone icons (and makes Fawcett a minor celebrity), he becomes convinced of the city’s existence, and would subsequently return several more times to South America, often with Costin in tow. Each trip is beset with troubles—including the final one, which Fawcett embarks upon with his now-grown son (Tom Holland). Without deviating too far from the historical record, Gray offers an ambiguous, even hallucinatory conclusion to the man’s obsessive crusade.
Pattinson quietly underplays his role from start to finish, and the film aids him in his task. Buried under a bushy beard and wide-brimmed hat, with round spectacles and a dusty, oily visage, the actor is often half-bathed in darkness, either at night or under the shadows cast by the towering and indifferent canopies of the jungle. These choices help keep this otherwise plainspoken man a bit enigmatic, but it’s Pattinson who makes him magnetic: a man of hardscrabble pragmatism, a reformed drunk who finds new purpose through his friendship with Fawcett and his inspirational if foolhardy conviction. Costin’s usual frankness only underscores his moments of passion, such as the exultant cry he emits when the men first spot the waterfalls of their destination, or the faraway, weary look in his eyes when telling Fawcett he’s sitting out what would become the explorer’s final trip into the unknown.
It’s worth noting this is far and away the James Gray film least driven by its performances. Somehow both preserving and undercutting the romanticism of the traditional adventure yarn, the director takes the Herzogian tact of dwarfing his characters with the beautiful but unforgiving scenery. But Gray is a classicist, not a postmodern deconstructionist. His sweeping wide shots and rich, painterly compositions are in service of grand themes of spiritual yearning, and that familiar human dissatisfaction with what life hands us. Against the epic canvas Gray paints, there’s Pattinson, an ordinary man who finds himself pushed to the extraordinary by his larger-than-life associate. It’s a genuine supporting turn: Pattinson serves the story, making it seem more real and alive, and providing a dose of authentic humanity in the process.