First Cow

(Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019)


At a time when so many films – especially of the American independent variety – seem to exhaust themselves with so much arbitrary, hectic movement (Safdie brothers, I’m looking at you), Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, is quietly impressive from its very first shots: still, sure, evocative, precisely framed. A lost art refound!


The story begins, beguilingly, with a present day scene to which it (hauntingly) never returns: a woman and her dog stumble upon a pair of skeletons buried, without tombstone or token, in the ground. What’s the story, the history, that put them there? Who are they?


Then, leaping back in time, the film becomes a low-key Western – lower-key than even, say, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), but with many of the same thematic concerns.


It’s an “origins of capitalism” tale – Westerns frequently are, in one way or another – but at an especially precarious, primal stage: different interest groups, settler or indigenous, are trying to figure what natural resources they need, and how best to get their hands on them. It’s in such a context that the first cow to reach this part of the land becomes a crucial stake in competing schemes.


That may sound like the stuff of a rather didactic, Marxist Western, but Reichardt filters it through the very gentle story of two soulful men who decide to bond and help each other out: King-lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro). Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Raymond brings his customary literary skill and insight to this scenario.


Talk, although it matters in its hardboiled, minimalist restraint, is not the most important thing that passes between these guys: as always in her cinema, Reichardt weaves a special aura of authenticity from the minute, physical rituals of working, making and tending.


In the fact, the film falters only at the point when the two men are forcefully separated, and the plot takes on the false allure of a hunt-suspense action movie – the type of generic thrill that Reichardt seems scarcely intent on achieving.


In the generally barren (i.e., decimated by pandemic) landscape of high-profile art cinema releases during 2020 and on into 2021, First Cow easily and justly stands out as a highlight.

© Adrian Martin August 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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