Photo: A24
by Sam Thomas-Redfern Featured Film Spotlight

First Cow | Kelly Reichardt

March 26, 2020

Kelly Reichardt’s latest treads familiar thematic territory, but her minimalist leanings here lend toward something altogether more expansive.

First Cow is a film of beginnings and endings — and, thusly, also of returns. Kelly Reichardt‘s second period film marks the return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, once again opening a dialogue with silent cinema to invoke a style of photography long since departed from mainstream film productions. It’s a work of densely textured images, of moss-covered trees and thickets that steep this 19th century portrait of Oregon in vegetation, in untamed land apathetic to the plight of every man and woman that suffuses the frontier. Loosely based on the novel The Half-Life by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, the story follows the friendship of Cookie, an innocuous man hired as a cook for a group of trappers, and King Lu, a Chinese immigrant found hiding from a band of hostile Russians in a bit of undergrowth. After Cookie secures his new friend’s escape, the two men meet again in a nearby town and establish a business selling fried biscuits, or ‘oil cakes,’ the primary ingredient of which they procure from the property of a wealthy English landowner — a cow, the first to arrive in the area.

Thematically, this could be considered familiar ground for Reichardt, yet here we can see the opening up of her minimalist style to allow it to bespeak wider historical processes that push forward in spite of individuals desperate for a piece of the pie. The film’s beginning is instrumental in this, serving as both a prologue and epilogue, in addition to acting as a conjunction of capitalism’s vector within Oregon Territory and the fate of her two protagonists. But where this really excels can be seen in the endearing instances of domesticity where Cookie and King Lu take lodgings together and form a bond that contrasts strikingly with the mercurial attitude of the boorish fur trappers; indeed, it comes as no surprise that the masculinity of the latter men is something represented as ultimately self-destructive and segregated from the ability to communicate — so vital to success. Considering the quite blunt inference of the prologue, success is not something the audience will necessarily expect of their protagonists. Thus, as the narrative enfolds, it becomes clear that the conflicts which comprise the film are only of importance inasmuch as they’re the driving forces which remind Cookie and King Lu of the exigencies of life, so that finally they may return to the earth, together.

Published as part of March 2020’s Before We Vanish.