First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

Like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a woozy quasi-Western that both treats the frontier life as a prelapsarian fantasy where everything is possible - "History isn't here yet," says someone - and locates in it the conflicts (and violence) that persist in finished-product America. Reichardt uses suspense more effectively than ever - more effectively than in Night Moves, maybe because she made that explicitly political whereas this is more of a fairytale (a buffoonish autocrat, like the emperor with new clothes; a cow, like in 'Jack and the Beanstalk') - and it's both a spoiler and no spoiler at all to reveal that the suspense is never resolved, merely folded into the narrative so the threat of violence becomes omnipresent, part of the fabric of the new country (one might equally say it got resolved in the opening 5 minutes). The feminine man who bakes cookies and picks flowers - and talks to the cow, a woman alone and another misfit - rhymes with the shots of Nature, wild reeds and birds in the trees; "Everyone is here," says his immigrant - and capitalist - friend, anything is possible, snippets of stories overheard under a card game ("He lived as a slave for three years..."), this being a "land of abundance" and opportunity (or missed opportunity); the film turns limpid and dreamlike, with one shot - Cookie's sanctuary, after the deception is uncovered - sporting a smudged, fuzzy look that's downright Guy Maddin-ish. In the end there's friendship, and the solace of a fake happy ending (the solace of the suspense remaining unresolved, you might say), against an unfair and impossible world; Reichardt's most ambitious film, and her most magical.