This rich, resonant and empathetic film about friendship and survival in a 19th-century Oregon community is director Kelly Reichardt's best yet.
April 29, 2021
Gone are the days when every image that flickered across the screen did so within an almost square-shaped frame. That time has long passed, in fact, with widescreen formats replacing the 1.375:1 Academy aspect ratio that once was standard in cinemas, and its 4:3 television counterpart. So, when a director today fits their visuals into a much tighter space than the now-expansive norm, it's an intentional choice. They're not just nodding to the past, even if their film takes place in times gone by. With First Cow, for instance, Kelly Reichardt unfurls a story set in 19th-century America, but she's also honing her audience's focus. The Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves and Certain Women filmmaker wants those guiding their eyeballs towards this exquisite movie to truly survey everything that it peers at. She wants them to see its central characters — chef Otis 'Cookie' Figowitz (John Magaro, Overlord) and Chinese entrepreneur King-Lu (Orion Lee, Zack Snyder's Justice League) — and to realise that neither are ever afforded such attention by the others in their fictional midst. Thoughtfully exploring the existence of figures on the margins has long been Reichardt's remit, as River of Grass, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy have shown as well, but she forces First Cow's viewers to be more than just passive observers in this process.
There's much to take in throughout this magnificently told tale, which heads to Oregon as most of Reichardt's movies have. There's plenty to glean from its patient static shots of the river and scrubby landscape circa 1820, and from the way that the director's three-time cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt shoots its leafy setting as a place of light and shadow. Most telling, though, is how First Cow constantly views Cookie and King-Lu within their surroundings. Sometimes, the outcast pair actively tries to blend in, but the film makes it clear that they're already consistently overlooked in the local fur-trapper community. Equally pivotal is the frequent use of frames within the feature's already-restricted imagery — sometimes via windows and doorways, as Certain Women did as well, or by peeking through the gaps in slats in the makeshift shack the pair decide to call home. Again and again, First Cow stresses that genuinely seeing these men, their lives, and their hopes, desires and attempts to chase the American dream, is an act of bearing witness to the smallest of details, delights, exchanges, glances and moments.
Initially, after watching an industrial barge power down a river, First Cow follows a woman (Alia Shawkat, Search Party) and her dog as they discover a couple of skeletons nearby. Then, jumping back two centuries and seeing another boat on the same waterway, it meets Cookie as he's searching for food. Whatever he finds, or doesn't, the fur-trapper team he works with never has a kind word to spare. But then Cookie stumbles across King-Lu one night, helps him evade the Russians on his tail, and the seeds of friendship are sown. When the duo next crosses paths, they spend an alcohol-addled night sharing their respective ideas for the future. Those ambitious visions get a helping hand after the Chief Factor (Toby Jones, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom) ships in the region's highly coveted first cow, with Cookie and King-Lu secretly milking the animal in the dark of night, then using the stolen liquid to make highly sought-after — and highly profitable — oily cakes.
In its own quiet, closely observed, deeply affectionate and warm-hearted fashion, First Cow is a heist film. Reichardt's gentle and insightful spin on the usually slick and twist-filled genre bucks every convention there is, however. Tension is a regular part of Cookie and King-Lu's lives; they're introduced being denigrated and chased, after all. So, while the pair tests their luck during their surreptitious moonlight rendezvous with the titular bovine, the film's sense of strain only increases slightly. Here, the act of pilfering isn't the main attraction. Those midnight scenes are gorgeous — Cookie chats tenderly to the cow as he squeezes her udders, offering his condolences about the mate and calf that didn't survive the journey — but they're also brief. Reichardt is far more interested in the change that Cookie and King-Lu bring out in each other, their connection as kindred spirits in an inhospitable locale and their small-scale quest to subvert the status quo. With sensitivity and compassion, but also with an unflinching awareness of how the world regards those on its fringes, First Cow examines the home and hope that one person can find in another, too, and interrogates the ways in which America's embrace of capitalism can inspire, lift and crush as well.
Bold plans, delicate subterfuge, big successes, fraught chases and sublime snatches of tranquility — all five play out in Reichardt's richly detailed and hauntingly soulful movie. Indeed, only she could've made this film sing as stirringly and bittersweetly as it does, and feel as transporting and resonant as it proves at every turn. Reichardt adapts Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half Life, co-scripting with the writer himself in their fifth collaboration. She's gifted with mesmerisingly soulful performances from Magaro and Lee, who play their parts so vividly and intricately that ten pictures about Cookie and King-Lu wouldn't be enough. But the empathy that seeps into each second is firmly one of the filmmakers's enduring and welcome hallmarks, as is the unwavering commitment to trading in the everyday and the intimate while excavating the perennial myth about the US being the land of opportunity.
Reichardt's approach isn't unparalleled, though. Fellow directors Chloé Zhao and Debra Granik have splashed many of the same traits throughout their work, and have also helmed masterpieces as a result; see: Nomadland and The Rider in the former's case, and Leave No Trace and Winter's Bone in the latter's. The three share not just a willingness but an eagerness to chronicle narratives that would otherwise be overlooked, traverse more than the usual patches of land, champion oft-ignored perspectives, and challenge America's values and self-image — and they each make their films feel like their own. With First Cow, Reichardt is leisurely and loving, and also candid and devastating. She ensures that everyone watching her boxed-in frames rides those ebbs and flows, and that they're moved by every moment. Whenever she steps behind the camera, something astonishing always happens, as her filmography just keeps demonstrating — but First Cow is pure cinematic perfection.