First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

My first film of year twenty-one of the twenty-first century has a "First" in the title, and that's only partly coincidental.

I was mighty curious about what a Kelly Reichardt-directed, A24-distributed film might look like, and the result is somewhat exactly what I expected. It's more traditionally shot and written than anything else I've seen by Reichardt, as it relies on medium closeups, shot-reverse-shots and a heavily dialogue-driven narration. However, it doesn't lose anything of what makes Reichardt's films great. She still subtly and effectively conveys various layers of character relationship in the way she cuts dialogue; and conserves her penchant for highly individualised shots that, through framing and sound mixing, make you feel and hear what the characters are feeling and hearing.

In terms of its subject matter, First Cow will inevitably remind you of Meek's Cutoff as a 19th century period piece set in Oregon that centres around food scarcity and race relations. Both films also highlight the kinship of marginalised people against prepotent rulers. If Michelle Williams' character in Meek's is the only one who, due to her womanhood, is willing to communicate with a person of colour, First Cow's enigmatic misfit Cookie takes it one step further. It's unclear whether he harbours sexual/romantic feelings for Lu (is Cookie spying on Lu as he washes, or looking at his ass as he climbs up the tree?), but what is clear is that the two share a bond that transcends social status and see each other as complex individuals.

There is also something of Wendy and Lucy in how the film is able to construct dread out of quiet, slow-paced scenes. For most of the film, Reichardt deliberately uses her subdued rhythms to relax, as Cookie is milking the cow, and even as Lu is running away from his chasers by boating downriver. But the last twenty minutes of the film are almost pure, concentrated anxiety, and yet barely a word is spoken; the camera moves very little; there is no music to artificially manipulate the pacing. All there exists is the dread of the inevitable fate brilliantly foreshadowed in the film's very first scene: at once sweet and sour, unjust and necessary, tragic and heartwarming.

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