It’s fair to say that Kelly Reichardt is a… reserved filmmaker. Particularly over the last decade-and-a-half, she’s burrowed down firmly into her niche of laconic dramas set in rural America exploring the relationships between often-marginalised outsiders in a society which shuns or resents them. They unfold at an often extremely slow pace, to a degree where they’re just as much elegiac mood pieces as they are character dramas, set in gorgeously shot but coldly isolating expanses. And the central, often-intimate and subtextually-homoerotic relationships are built more on the words not said between the protagonists, usually resolving anticlimactically or ambiguously.
Hers is a niche and she is very adept at her niche by this point. Certain Women, her previous feature, won Best Film at the 2016 London Film Festival against universal Best Picture winner for the year Moonlight! She is empathetic, accomplished, assured, thoughtful… and also somebody whose films I remain frustratingly unable to fully love. I saw Certain Women several times since my initial viewing at said LFF and every time I found myself appreciating it rather than being able to love it, aside from that brilliant final story involving Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart as wandering lonely souls who want to connect but are strangled by an inability to find the words required. Those 30 to 40 minutes were Reichardt’s strengths – her deeply-realised sense of place, magnificent light touch with actors, relaxed melancholic pace, and empathetic explorations of loneliness and connection – distilled together into some truly enrapturing cinema, lacking the intentional fat and bad kind of anti-climax I feel she can sometimes succumb to.
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First Cow, her latest feature now belatedly making it way to the UK, has a lot in common with that last Certain Women story. Especially since the setting, 1820s Oregon County in the midst of being settled, more calls to conscious mind a return to Reichardt’s breakthrough, Meek’s Cutoff. Instead, the film’s big empathetic hook relies on the unlikely connection between two wandering lonely souls. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a shy, quiet and kind-hearted chef, the kind of person who will stop to gently turn insects stuck on their backs onto their feet again, initially shacked up with a bunch of aggressive and spiteful fur trappers. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is an ambitious dreamer of a Chinese immigrant initially on the run from angry Russians after killing one in retaliation for a hate crime. They first cross paths when Cookie one night gives shelter to Lu and later reunite in the local settlement after Cookie’s gig has concluded and Lu’s unseen pursuers have given up and left the country.
You can see in that scene how ill-at-ease Cookie is with frontier living, the discomfort and anxiety he has with being in a bustling bar where tensions threaten to escalate around him. A deep loneliness and disconnection with the uncaring unsparing dog-eat-dog reality of the New World dream. Even when King-Lu recognises Cookie and approaches him with an offer to go back to Lu’s nearby shack for drinks, there’s a noticeable reservation and shrinkage in Cookie’s demeanour that comes from more than just not wanting to leave this baby he’d been ordered to watch over whilst its father engaged in a brawl outside with some English arseholes. It’s what makes the following scene when the pair get to the shack, near-wordless but aching in male vulnerability and unexpected bonding, so magnetic and quietly moving. Reichardt’s relaxed visual storytelling, tendency for minimalist dialogue, and Magaro and Lee’s soulful performances all playing off of each other wonderfully.
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Eventually, an actual plot does emerge. Cookie and Lu both want to make their fortune but are cut off at the knees by the immutable truth that, for all the claims about it being “the land of opportunity,” neither have the capital or means to accrue even the small modicum of wealth required to fund their modest dreams. (Cookie wants to open a San Fran bakery/hotel, Lu wants to own a farm and travel the world.) Lu, therefore, cooks up a scheme. The nearby English Chief Factor (Toby Jones), not coincidentally the only man with an actual house instead of a makeshift shack, has just imported the titular first cow into the region which makes him the sole owner of the area’s milk supply. Under the cover of night, Lu proposes, he and Cookie will sneak onto Chief Factor’s property, milk the cow and use that milk to create baked goods they can sell in town to despondent villagers who exclusively eat tasteless stale bread, repeating the cycle as long as it takes for them to raise the money required to successfully flee West.
As is Reichardt’s way, First Cow is deliberately super-low-key and spends a very long time actively shying away from the tension inherent in the external stakes our protagonists deal with. Many scenes actively meander, especially that elongated opening half-hour or so before Cookie and Lu reunite in the bar. As is also the case with Reichardt, your mileage will vary as to whether you find such languid plate-setting hypnotic and essential or testing and bloated, assuming you don’t oscillate between the two extremes. For me, I’m very much an oscillator who gets a lot of what she’s going for but often finds myself feeling like at least a good 20 minutes of her work could be cut without losing a whole lot in the process, and that’s no different here. For example, the present-day prologue which sets up a sort of mystery has an incredible final payoff at the film’s very end, but it’s also upwards of five minutes of wordless digging which could easily have been halved. The line between ‘deliberate’ and ‘self-indulgent’ pacing is a razor-thin one I personally think Reichardt has issues properly balancing on.
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But if the wind-up of her films sometimes gets on the verge of or crosses into dull time-wasting, the pitch and subsequent strike do connect more often than not. In this very tortured metaphor, those last two are the communication of her central themes and characters and the eventual often-quietly heart-breaking third-act payoffs. Her puncturing of the inherent lie within the capitalistic ideals that America was founded upon is subtle but incisive, built more around production design and those unsaid words between characters than blunt moralising. You can feel an uneasy chill whenever the Chief Factor and his men have to interact with Lu that exposes their prejudicial racism without ever having to throw slurs about the place. Frequent collaborator Christopher Blauvelt often mires the camera in unspectacular forests neither luscious nor filthy, a mundane squalor which contrasts with the privileged clearing of Chief Factor’s land, whilst Reichardt utilises a 4:3 aspect ratio to literally box her protagonists in as they feel they are by the American dream.
Most of all, it’s Magaro and Lee who shine brightest. Their bond is believable and the closest thing to naturally relaxed in the whole movie. Magaro shows a constant tenderness and kindness that makes scenes of him milking a cow really quite moving, whilst Lee strikes an affecting balance between Lu’s realist understanding of their situation and innate hopefulness that they’ll be able to successfully game the system in spite of that. Neither are traditional fountains of charisma, both characters and actors, and that makes them compelling. They complement without foundationally changing each other, quietly inspiring and finding understated intimacy. Unexpectedly perfect soulmates hoping for a shared-future they’re unlikely to have stuck in a world which doesn’t care about the survival of the relatively-powerless. Even when Reichardt’s trademark moseying risks falling into dull aimlessness, they are the lodestar which keeps First Cow on-track.
First Cow is out in UK cinemas on 28th May and will stream exclusively on MUBI from 9th July. Please check your cinema’s website for details of Covid-19 safety measures, and read up on government and local government guidelines, and the latest scientific advice about safety and risks.