Here’s a piece of good news for homebound cinema buffs: The newest opus by Kelly Reichardt, who teaches in the film and electronic arts program at Bard College, is available for streaming after nearly a year in commercial limbo. First Cow had a rough introduction into the world, debuting at Telluride in August 2019. Its limited theatrical release in March 2020 was aborted by the COVID-19 shutdown. We can now rent it at home via the usual movies-on-demand outlets. (I went with the cheapest option – Redbox at $3.99 – and ended up kicking myself for not shelling out the extra buck for the HD version. The cinematographic subtleties would’ve been worth it.)
Reichardt’s films tend not to be box-office smashes even in the easiest of times, but they’re well-worth seeking out. This is her first release since Certain Women in 2016, which we loved: https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2016/11/03/review-certain-women-know-what-they-want-but-are-too-nice-to-go-for-it. She’s a genuine auteur with a minimalist/realist aesthetic who tells intimate human stories, usually in historical settings, with no fancy cinematic frills. A low budget seems not a limitation for her, but a challenge to cut to the core of her story. Excellent actors like working under her direction, which is fortunate, because character-driven drama is her forte. Gesture always trumps dialogue. And an “action scene” in a Reichardt film is some people chasing some other people through the woods – no CGI required.
This approach naturally rules out a lot of people who want to spend their movie budgets on summer blockbusters. You might want to delve deeper. First Cow is loosely based on The Half-Life, a 2004 novel by Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt’s longtime collaborator. They wrote the screenplay together. Except for a brief framing device in the opening sequence, the movie version eliminates the contemporary part of the novel’s paired narratives, as well as a voyage across the Pacific, and it conflates two major characters into one. Not having read the book, I wasn’t disappointed.
The main story is set in Oregon in the 1820s, when the fashion for beaver hats in Europe was driving fur traders into uncharted territories. The cast of characters is remarkably diverse, reflecting the bustling reality of frontier life in that time and place. We find indigenous people from several tribes bemusedly making room for settlers and fortune-hunters from the East Coast, China, Russia and even Hawaii. Though we don’t learn his origins, there’s at least one black man in the human mix to be found at Fort Tillicum, the area’s busiest crossroads. The bad guys are some Russian trappers and an effete wealthy Englishman (the great Toby Jones), importer of the titular bovine.
First Cow is unquestionably a Western, though it doesn’t look or feel much like any that you’ve seen before. Imagine The Revenant without all the bombast. Reichardt does a remarkable job of peeling back the shiny Hollywood veneer from familiar tropes, subverting our expectations while delivering images that seem to reflect historical reality much more accurately. Fort Tillicum, for instance, is barely recognizable as a Wild-West town, though it has the requisite grimy saloon. It’s more like a hobo jungle. You may have seen more permanent-looking structures in the camping area of a weekend music festival. Everything looks hastily assembled from whatever scraps could be scavenged from the last trading party to pass through.
Scavenging, and in particular foraging, is a major visual theme in this narrative, right from the opening scene. The first of our two protagonists, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), is a gentle, conflict-avoidant type who resigns from his gig feeding a quarrelsome troop of fur-trappers as soon as he gets the chance. Attempting to live off the land in a place that’s richly endowed by nature isn’t easy if you grew up in a city, and what Cookie is best at is baking. He dreams of going back to San Francisco and opening a hotel. A spontaneous act of kindness – something that Cookie is also good at, and deeply appreciates when he’s on the receiving end – leads him to bond with King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run from the Russian baddies.
King-Lu is a likable character as well, but in a more worldly way. He has seen much of the world as a merchant seaman and speaks several languages. Where Cookie is shy and reticent, he’s a chatterbox, relatively speaking; a philosophical schemer, attracted to the Pacific Northwest as a place of untapped opportunity. Their developing friendship – a tender blossom growing improbably in a harsh environment of desperate human outcasts – is the meat of this story, and both actors are wonderful.
Conflict rears its ugly head when King-Lu proposes that they make night raids to milk the rich Englishman’s cow, the only one for many miles around. The “oily cakes” that Cookie bakes using the stolen milk and cream prove far too popular with the ill-fed folk of Fort Tillicum for this lucrative venture to end well.
It’s not a complicated tale. The art is in the direction, the finely nuanced acting and particularly in Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography. Shot in a 4:3 ratio, this is not your Cinemascope Big-Sky Western, but a visual meditation on keenly observed details. Don’t try watching it in the daytime. Many scenes take place at night or in dimly lit interior spaces, and you’ll miss way too much of what’s going on.
The composition and lighting are minimalist but powerful, sparingly applying such effects as a human silhouette limned around the edges by sunlight. We barely notice that the color palette is nearly all in shades of rustic brown and gold until the luxurious painted interiors of the Englishman’s frontier manor pop out at us in stark contrast. A scene in which Cookie is working inside a cabin, backlit by a doorway, while King-Lu can be seen chopping wood outdoors, framed by a window, will linger in this viewer’s mind a long time, methinks.
Check out First Cow on a TV screen near you. And then see what else you can find by Kelly Reichardt, a director whose quiet brilliance deserves far louder acclaim.