Patrick Preziosi on Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ (2019)
Since 1994, director Kelly Reichardt’s plainspoken, melancholic and distinctly American tales have situated themselves in hyper-specific milieus. All the while, they are staring down the barrel of some larger, more universal fallout—whether or not the characters are aware of the subsequent historical significance or not. This method of constructing a backdrop from the nugatory details of a political, economic, or social sphere — such as chronicling the post 2008 stock market crash landscape through a woman and her dog (2008’s Wendy and Lucy), or allowing a small group of oblivious settlers to come to represent the many failings of Manifest Destiny (2010’s Meek’s Cutoff) — has allowed Reichardt’s films to carry themselves with a multifaceted intimacy. It then circles back to tackle the mythos of the American dream while still preserving a precise sense of narrative and setting. That is to say: Reichardt’s America is one full of pastoralism and romanticism, though the inherent pitfalls are anything but peripheral.
It’s a testament to Reichardt’s talents as a consummate storyteller that these respective precipices and aftermaths aren’t just merely calling-cards, and First Cow, her newest, continues this streak. The film offers some of her most touching and downright affectionate material, while tucking within its fable-esque rhythms a genuinely prescient environmental concern, despite being set in Oregon circa 1820. Never one to hamfistedly politicise, Reichardt opts for a contextualising tool unique in her filmography that further preserves the tale of two friends and a clandestine milk-and-baking operation. Off the banks of some Pacific-Northwest shore, with trawlers crawling by, a new Wendy and Lucy, the former played by none other than Ali Shawkat, come across the buried bones of two men.
With a historical precedent set, the film then cuts to the same woods, though this time damper and chillier, as the hard-scrabble hands of Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) scrape the dirt for mushrooms, and then set a salamander upright. Now back in 1820, Cookie is the hired-cook for a trio of scabrous and short-fused beaver trappers, eager to make their way to a small outpost camp to trade in their pelts and then be on their separate ways. Cookie already is a poor match for these repugnantly aggressive men; they’re quick to scrap, and of Cookie they demand nothing but wild game, though he is really just a baker caught in the wrong crowd. Heightening this contrast, Cookie seems to have an unspoken kinship with the nature surrounding him, as if he’s unwilling to disrupt any of it, whereas his employers are perpetuating the decline of the beaver.
On a nighttime walk, Cookie comes across King Lu (Orion Lee), naked and crouching in the brush, fleeing from offscreen Russian fur-trappers. In a subtle flip of the gross stereotypes heaped upon the American indigenous population — and white Americans’s own casual inability to comprehend the variable matters of race — Cookie confusedly refers to Lu as “Indian” (he’s Chinese), and Lu outlines the horrifying tale of his friend, caught by the Russians, being cut from his neck to his loin. Literally hunted like a wild animal, Cookie decides to help hide Lu, who then escapes downriver when the time is right.
Despite Cookie’s initial display of naive obliviousness, he becomes quick friends with Lu when they reconnect once again at the promised frontier camp, a shantytown of huts, tents, and one fairly pristine British townhouse, all rising from the Pacific-Northwest mud. The camp is defined by capital, as bartering and currency reign, and even though its denizens are probably only in the double digits, there is already an all too clear class system, with Toby Jones’s Chief Factor comfortably sitting at the top. Adding to Factor’s status is his possession of the cow of the title, the only cow in the entire territory, first seen being ferried into the camp in a divine moment of introduction usually reserved for a star who is, well, human.
Lu and Cookie eventually begin sneaking onto Factor’s land to steal buckets of milk to bake biscuits and the like, but it isn’t initially done so with the intent of financial gain; in fact, their relationship retains its believable eloquencies for not being predicated on any sort of get rich quick scheme. As is customary with much of Reichardt’s work, First Cow champions the simple grace of getting up in the morning to try and do one’s best –– such as when Cookie and Lu quietly clean the latter’s house together –– that then extends to the biscuit operation, which they continue with similar care and community. Their baked goods’ “secret ingredient” is the clandestine milk, but Cookie strives to convey a sense of home in a landscape that feels to be rejecting its newfound inhabitants through his cooking. When the two sell-out for the day, numerous faces are stricken with lingering heartbreak of not having had the opportunity to taste.
Still abiding by the linearity of a solid narrative, there is a lot of waiting for the other shoe to drop in First Cow, though Reichardt dispenses with it carefully, flaunting the kind of fleet-footedness that comes from so thoroughly ironing out a film’s formal elements. Touchingly so, Reichardt doesn’t view history through a lens of epicness, but rather maps its intersecting peaks and valleys, teasing out different contours of the story so that they exist as just more than auxiliary elements. At a brief meeting at Chief Factor’s home, we’re suddenly in the company of members of the indigenous population, presumably hired as servants and the like. Among them are Gary Farmer (of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man) and Lily Gladstone (who took Reichardt’s own 2016 film Certain Women and ran with it), who speak in a language nearing extinction, and we are never given any sort of subtitling. It feels like a lightning in a bottle moment, all the more effective for how it occupies about a total of five minutes of screentime.
Reichardt’s filmmaking has confronted pushback on the grounds of its “slowness”, but now seven features in, she’s come ahead of all other American independent filmmakers of the 21st century for just how satisfied she is to be an astute observer. The frequent help of co-writer Johnathan Raymond and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt provide the bedrock for such an approach, but as her ensembles grow, and as her films occupy both the past and present, Reichardt rightfully posits herself as the truest unifying force.
First Cow screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival and is in UK cinemas 6th March 2020