Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” opened in a handful of cities earlier this year around the start of the Coronavirus outbreak. Within days it’s run was over, cut short by the wave of theater closings across the country. Surprisingly distributor A24 decided against making the movie available on VOD saying they were going to relaunch the film “once the marketplace has rebounded“.
A few months have passed and the market has yet to rebound, but “First Cow” is finally making its way to home television screens. This is a Kelly Reichardt film through and through which is sure to thrill critics who frequently praise her unique brand of filmmaking. At the same time her minimalist style, slow-moving stories, and ambiguous endings have often stymied general moviegoers.
I understand both sentiments. I like Reichardt’s working-class focus, contemplative rhythms, and deep affection for her characters. But I’ve long wrestled with ambiguous endings and the fine line between challenging the audience and shortchanging a story. The idea of getting us to write the finish is fine when the movie leaves behind enough for us to do so. But when it doesn’t the results can be frustrating. Take a movie like Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff”. It clearly worked for many, yet by the end I was far more conscious of the intentional ambiguity than challenged to ponder the fate of the pioneers.
“First Cow” is indeed slow-moving, it has a simple focus, and it leaves you with questions. But the difference here is in the film’s ability to both encourage thought and tell a fulfilling story. As you would expect, the movie informs us without holding our hands. Instead much is gleaned through its rich character development and the immersive frontier setting. Both sufficiently give us all we need to connect with the story and add our own interpretations. This may be Reichardt’s best film.
From the very first scene Reichardt let’s us know she is working towards something. A series of shots show a young woman discovering two human skeletons near a riverbank. Too shallow for a grave, these bones have laid there undiscovered for years and there’s no doubting that they have a story to tell. Normally a discovery of two skeletons in the opening minutes would loom over the film like an ominous dark cloud. But as we’re transported back to 1820’s Oregon, Reichardt does such a good job pulling us into the period that we almost forget the cryptic opening.
We’re first introduced to the gentle, kind, and soft-spoken Cookie (John Magaro) as he picks mushrooms in a lush patch of forest. Turns out he’s a cook traveling with a group of surly, burly fur trappers. In a subtly comical first meeting, Cookie discovers a naked Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee) hiding in the bushes. He’s cold, hungry, and on the run from some really bad Russians. Cookie gives him some water, a blanket, and a place to sleep for the night.
They go their separate ways but meet again later in a small settlement. King Lu remembers Cookie’s act of kindness and invites him out to a shack he has turned into a home. The two develop a friendship that form the backbone for the entire film. Through their seemingly natural rapport we learn all we need to know about the pair, their character, their ambitions. Cookie is every bit the big-hearted tender soul while the chatty King Lu is a dreamer with an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s also glaringly obvious that they’re misfits in a harsh and unforgiving land.
Then a conversation about biscuits sparks an idea. The two begin sneaking onto the property of a wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones) in the dead of night to extract milk from the territory’s first and only cow. It’s used to make Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” which they take into town and sell to the homesick frontiersmen for a tidy sum. In the burgeoning spirit of capitalism Cookie and King Lu keep building their business which means swiping more milk in order to make more cakes (‘Supply and Demand’ and all that jazz). They keep going despite clear indicators that they should take their profits and skedaddle.
“History isn’t here yet, but it’s coming,” Lu prophesies. “Maybe this time we’ll be ready for it.” Of course they aren’t and that’s the sad part of this otherwise warm and slyly funny frontier drama. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond deeply root their script in the human experience. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s Academy box ratio draws our eyes inward and concentrates our focus on the characters. Plus the film is bathed in an array of colorful faces including a special little nugget, a terrific cameo marking the final appearance of the late René Auberjonois. In other words, “First Cow” isn’t worried about beautiful vistas or untapped lands. It’s the people within each frame that we’re urged to explore.
Before a single image hits our screen Reichardt greets us with a fitting William Blake quote: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It simply means friendships (like the one Cookie and King Lu share) are natural, complex, and essential parts of our being. But the film reminds us that even the tightest and most earnest bond can be seduced by the sinister allure of “just a little more”. “First Cow” is now available in select theaters and on VOD.
VERDICT- 4.5 STARS