The latest release from ingenious director Kelly Reichardt is a brilliant and moving drama, but also an unusual one. Like all Reichardt’s films, it is slow-paced and introspective, focusing intently on the inner lives of the characters rather than on the action, making the hopes, dreams, and relationships between the characters the main source of drama. Her films require the viewer’s attention, and patience with the leisurely pace and attention to minor detail; but such patience is rewarded.
First Cow, after a very positive reception at international film festivals (and a nomination for the Golden Bear best film award in Berlin), was recently released exclusively online as a concession to the current epidemic. The script is based on the novel The Half Life, by Jonathan Raymond. Raymond himself, who adapted the novel for the screen along with Reichardt, was responsible for writing the scripts for several past Reichardt films: Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Night Moves. The screenplay takes the already simple and homely storyline of The Half Life and further simplifies it, adapting only a portion of the actual novel, all but eliminating a main sub-plot and tightening the focus, resulting in a beautifully minimalist story with the fundamental theme of friendship.
Like several of Reichardt’s past films, First Cow is set in 19th-century Oregon, and follows the lives of settlers moving into the state’s newly accessible frontier. The film opens on a brief present-day scene, rearranging the novel to allow for an intriguing flash-forward introduction that hints at a long-past tragedy, before moving back to the frontier era. A group of trappers are slowly moving west by covered wagon, hoping to reach a fort in Oregon where they can sell their pelts and replenish their supplies. The gruff, crude, sometimes violent trappers are a contrast to the wagon’s cook, Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro), who is small, meek, and easily intimidated, and who is routinely browbeaten by the rest of his crew. His unhappy situation begins to unexpectedly change when he comes upon a man sheltering in the woods, naked, starving, and apparently fleeing some threat. Cookie helps the man, a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), and from here the film follows the story of the friendship that slowly develops between the two reserved and cautious men.
At the trappers’ destination, the title character is introduced with understated fanfare: a pretty and placid dairy cow, the first-ever brought into the area by settlers and the subject of much local interest. She is owned by the frontier town’s wealthiest resident, the cruel and autocratic Chief Factor (Toby Jones) and his unnamed Indian wife (played by Lily Gladstone, whose debut in Reichardt’s earlier film, Certain Women, caught the eye of critics). The town is portrayed with gritty realism, consisting of a fort surrounded by makeshift cabins, tents, and mud huts, along with Chief Factor’s more substantial home and a single saloon. Most of the people are ragged and dirty, migrants from everywhere drawn by the potential for wealth, hopeful for luck at prospecting for gold, or at starting an enterprise in untried territory. Cowed by the brutality and confidence of the other residents, the similarly mild-mannered Cookie and King-Lu easily take refuge in each other’s company, and end up sharing a cabin. As their rapport and mutual trust grows, they confide their modest ambitions and make plans for a possible joint money-making enterprise, and from these plans emerges a source of potential danger and growing suspense, involving the town’s only cow.
Reichardt is painstaking in making every detail of her films just right, and First Cow is no exception. She once again uses cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who has worked with the director on several previous films. He always achieves the sense of close but impartial observation that her films require, and has the knack for quietly showcasing the images and events that need to stand out, in this case including the absurd stateliness of the newly arrived cow being transported by barge to its new home, or the charged first meeting of the two main characters. Blauvelt’s camera work gives the necessary significance to the most minor action or object, which works perfectly with this script. The look of the film is augmented by a dreamy folk music-inspired score by novice composer William Tyler, and carefully naturalistic set design.
The casting is excellent, as usual for a Reichardt film. The two leads are sympathetic and have perfect chemistry; Toby Jones is casually despotic and provides the requisite hint of menace; Lily Gladstone as his wife appears dutiful but hints at having contrary opinions. The late Rene Auberjonois is unrecognisable and eccentric as the mysterious and seemingly mad Man With Raven, who appears to act as a sort of incoherent oracle, responding cryptically to the characters’ circumstances and fate. Even the minor and unnamed characters, such as the belligerent trappers or the enigmatically watchful native people, are all compelling and contribute to the film’s unique atmosphere. It all adds up to another Reichardt success and one of the must-see films of the year.