Some filmmakers—be they full-fledged auteurs or studio journeymen—seem to reinvent themselves regularly, whether consciously or out of necessity, each new film different from the last. On the other hand, there are filmmakers whose oeuvres are remarkably consistent, exploring the same formal, thematic, and emotional terrain over and over again, to varied effect. A recent example of this kind of filmmaker is the American independent writer-director Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt’s seven features contain numerous throughlines and comprise an astoundingly lucid body of work. Her latest, First Cow, represents a marked refinement of an already exquisite viewpoint, and it shows the filmmaker evolving even as she treads familiar ground.
Though it opens in the present (with a brief, wondrous interlude featuring Alia Shawkat), the film largely takes place in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s. It loosely adapts one of the two narrative threads from The Half-Life (the first novel by Reichardt’s frequent screenwriting partner Jonathan Raymond) about the friendship between two men, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). They come together under fortuitous circumstances: Cookie, so-called because he’s the cook for a group of trappers, meets King-Lu, naked and hungry, in the sprawling Oregon rainforest. Cookie helps the man, who’s running away from some Russians whose friend he killed. King-Lu soon moves on, but the two meet again, in a nearby frontier town, and become friends and housemates. In its central friendship, the film feels most explicitly analogous to Reichardt’s second feature, Old Joy (which explored a more tentative relationship between two men), but the larger theme of relationships formed against natural and man-made worlds is in keeping with most of the director’s films.
Its pithy title refers to the first dairy cow that’s been brought into the fledgling territory. The animal is owned by the British nobleman Chief Factor (Toby Jones), but Cookie and King-Lu begin stealing milk from it after Cookie discloses to his friend that he has a propensity for baking. The two start producing donut-like items they call oily cakes, selling them to the local population in hopes that they may save enough to open a hotel in San Francisco. Among their customers is the Chief Factor himself, who takes a shine to Cookie. That the film’s tension (related to the men’s fear and eventual reality of being discovered for stealing milk) stems from Cookie’s desire to make sweet things is representative of Reichardt’s characteristic tenderness. It also speaks to the richness of her vision that the film’s portrait of early capitalism can be read as an allegory for our current late-capitalist hellscape, even though Reichardt has asserted that she doesn’t intend to make expressly political films.
First Cow could be considered a Western—as was the case with her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, which contains more obvious genre trappings—though, in interviews, Reichardt has either gently rejected the label (she prefers to call it a caper) or has said that she considers it to be one with a different perspective. One such indicator of that is how the film examines the dynamic between the town’s colonalist population and the Native Americans who presided there long before. This is most apparent in the scenes set at Chief Factor’s house, where he lives with his Native American wife (played by the incomparable Lily Gladstone, from Reichardt’s 2016 film Certain Women). Such scenes reflect Reichardt’s fully formed viewpoint of the world and its myriad of complexities, a perspective that doesn’t draw attention to itself but is discernible nonetheless. Hers isn’t a political mindset, but a humanist one. This applies also to her characterization of King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant who is viewed derisively by Chief Factor and his crew, but whom Cookie considers a true friend and partner.
First Cow is especially accomplished in its aesthetic. It was shot on 35-millimeter film by Christopher Blauvelt, who’s been the cinematographer on all of Reichardt’s films since Meek’s Cutoff. Like that film, it was shot in 1.37:1, otherwise known as the Academy ratio; in both films, the frame’s square shape actually heightens a sense of visual inclusion. In First Cow, Reichardt contemplates the towering forests of Oregon as well as the full-bodied intricacies of Cookie and King-Lu’s day-to-day laborings. At times I was reminded of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose meditations on natural and human environments evoke a calm that’s at once peaceful and precarious. The film opens with a line from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell—“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”—which epitomizes that dichotomy.
With directors whose work is often similar, one wonders if we keep returning to it because the films are familiar, or, rather, if we’re discovering a subtle breaking of ground in each new work. With Reichardt it’s the latter, though there’s comfort to be had in the more obvious through-lines, from her love affair with the Oregon landscape to her thoughtful examination of the ties that bind us to other humans, to the natural world, and even to animals—Cookie finds solace in talking to the cow whilst milking her, apologizing for man’s interference into her peaceful life. There’s wisdom here, a sort of tranquility that lingers even amidst its tension. The film’s opening scene, which I won’t spoil, is perhaps representative of this; Reichardt may be excavating history, her artistic past, but she’s also looking forward, up, to terrain yet to be pioneered. v