First Cow

First Cow ★★★★★

If Meek’s Cutoff was Reichardt’s look at demythologising the old norms of the American western, First Cow is her attempt to completely recontextualize them. I don’t know if any other entry in the genre has ever been quite this tender, or quite so human in its storytelling. It is a powerful, understated, compassionate piece of filmmaking, and one of the most immersive cinema experiences that I can remember.

The real beauty of this film is its simplicity. It is first and foremost a film about friendship—between a travelling chef, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, and a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu, who cross paths quite by chance one evening when the former is out foraging for food for his party of cantankerous fur trappers. Otis discovers King-Lu cowering in the undergrowth, completely naked, and learns that the latter is fleeing a group of Russian thugs who are hot on his tail. Otis offers him clothing and shelter for the night, and although the pair are separated the next morning (parting ways for an undefined period of time) they are soon reunited and develop a close bond; sharing in each other’s chores and chatting idly about their past lives and future ambitions. It’s via one of these idle conversations that the two begin discussing the arrival of the region’s first ever dairy cow—brought to the area by its owner, a wealthy local trader known as the “Chief Factor”. From here they hatch a plan to steal the cow’s milk—milking her in the dead of night when no one can see them—in order to use it to bake biscuits (or “oily cakes”) that they can then sell at the local market. Their cakes are an instant success, and it isn’t long before the pair start to make good money from their enterprise. But their cakes are too good, and word quickly spreads, drawing the attention of the Chief Factor himself, who becomes so enamoured with their goods that he offers to hire their services for his own personal catering needs.

It isn’t a stretch at this point to figure out what direction the story might be heading in—and there is one particular trigger that everyone will see coming—but it doesn’t detract from the power of the storytelling in the slightest. The film’s central idea is so delightful, and its characters are so endearing, that I quickly found myself completely swept up in the story and its environment. The latter is something that Reichardt shows a true command of here; creating a cinematic experience that is not only visually sumptuous, but which feels palpable to the senses—you can smell the woodsmoke, feel the dirt between your toes, and the cool refreshing sensation of river water rushing between your fingers. The vibrant autumnal colours of the Oregon scenery gives the film a wonderful earthy, warm glow; all captured so beautifully in boxy 4:3—an aspect ratio that conversely doesn’t restrict our point of view, but rather focusses it and immerses us in the details. It helps that Reichardt’s camera is often just static—quietly watching events unfold. I loved all of the film’s many peaceful, observational shots that simply followed people as they went about their daily tasks and trades; not least our central duo, who spend so much of the film in each other’s company—foraging for food, tending to the fire, preparing meals, or repairing their torn clothing. Whenever the camera does move, it does so with precision and purpose—exemplified in one particular interior scene, where an oscillating tracking shot strafes back and forth across a prostrate sleeper as another character moves about in the background. It is made to seem like such a straightforward piece of staging, but it is so elegantly executed. The camera is meticulously commanded by DP Christopher Blauvelt (one of Kelly’s long-term collaborators) who conveys so much with seemingly so little effort. It’s this gentle but detailed style of observational cinema for which Reichardt and Blauvelt may well be unmatched.

It all adds up to create an experience and a setting that feels remarkably authentic. As with Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt builds a world here that seems alive and lived in. The film itself feels like a celebration of a time when humans still had a tangible connection to, and appreciation for, the landscape in which they lived. It is like a little snapshot of our human history—one that is purely fictional, yet feels so honest and real. I believed that what I was watching was true—that the characters in it at one time existed, and that the connections between them and the challenges they faced were things that our ancestors genuinely lived through. Reichardt alludes to this in the clever way she both begins and ends the film—starting in the present day before providing a material link to the film’s historical events. It’s a wonderful concept—that idea of unearthing an artefact that then tangibly ties us to our past and makes us ponder who set foot on the earth before us. Reichardt presents us with just one possible version of this untold history; one of so many stories about ordinary folk that have long since been forgotten. It’s such a brilliant idea, and it makes for truly compelling viewing here.

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