Kelly Reichardt, one of the greatest demonstrators of minimalist filmmaking, has a unique way of sneaking up on you. To watch one of her films is to have patience and immerse yourself in a tranquil snapshot bolstered by the intimacy of her flawed characters, viewing her new film “First Cow” is no different. I’m constantly surprised at how effective she is at establishing mood, and I really shouldn’t be by this point. This movie is another wonderful addition to her already impressive oeuvre.
In the early 19th century, two men, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), traverse the Oregon frontier in search of success; however, it finds them. With Cookie’s skills as a chef, he suggests making oily cakes to sell to the workers at a nearby fort. The only ingredient they seem to be missing is fresh milk. When a wealthy landowner, the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), brings a beautiful brown cow to the territory, the two dreamers grapple with the consequential quandaries of utilizing its resources at night for their business venture.
If you go through Kelly Reichardt’s filmography, each of her works shares many similarities with the others. Serene midwestern backdrops, natural silence and an open air of poetic honesty have given her aesthetic a special place in the world of slow cinema. The mundanity is the point. Viewers unaccustomed to her leisurely paced aesthetic could find her work tedious or “boring,”claiming that nothing really happens. And I’d argue, especially in “First Cow,” that she illustrates subdued suspense like few other filmmakers have.
The suspense at the heart of “First Cow” derives from Cookie and King Lu making the decision to steal milk from the Chief Factor’s prized cow late at night for their popular oily cakes trade. King Lu keeps watch in the trees while Cookie milks as gently as he can, the air of danger permeating their every move. Reichardt’s previous films carry a similar air about them. You have the park drunk in “Wendy and Lucy,” the river damn operation in “Night Moves” and the boiling familial tension of “Meek’s Cutoff”; it’s always been there. The imminent sense of danger comes from a place of familiarity that doesn’t need an accentuating score to heighten the peril.
What I find so endearing about the budding friendship between Cookie and King Lu is how it blossoms in an air so prone to violence: hit first, talk it out later. Their very introduction is Cookie, a tired chef searching for a sense of security and permanence, presenting King Lu, a Chinese immigrant who’s naked and on the run, with food and shelter despite the trouble that may befall him. Magaro (“Overlord”) and Lee (“Informer”) are tremendous at demonstrating how a truly soulful friendship, forged in a simple act of compassion such as theirs, can thrive in their environment. As loving as they are toward one another, the frontier landscape is not romanticized as an easy or peaceful place for them to prosper.
Hell, Reichardt’s adversity to violence is so ingrained in her style that, in “Certain Women,” there’s an entire stretch of Laura Dern’s story dedicated to one of her disgruntled clients holding a security guard in an office building, and it’s comprised of silence, empathy and understanding. The same approach applies here. When men go to fight, whether for money or general masculine impulses, she relegated them to the background, allowing her kindhearted leads to bear the brunt of our empathy. Reichardt seems to understand the possibilities of male friendships better than a great deal of men.
“My films are about people who don’t have a safety net,” she says. Take Michelle Williams in “Wendy and Lucy” as a resourceful, tired woman trying unsuccessfully to make her way out of a modest Oregon town, a perfect vehicle to demonstrate the inherent hardships brought on by the 2008 financial crisis. Cookie and King Lu are two men of the same coin, experiencing hardships, however, in different manners. Her catalogue has always shown a quiet disdain towards the detrimental effects of capitalism.
“First Cow” implores you to confront your own internal class prejudices in deciding who’s in the right. Cookie and King Lu are, by definition, stealing. The cow belongs to the Chief Factor, who’s utilizing it to flaunt his wealth and provide the cream in his morning coffee. Does the milk taste better in the hands of a well-off, subtly rude individual keen on doling out punishments as inspiration, or in the company of two highly empathetic men making use of a valuable, untapped resource?
Even with their success, the duo must go to great lengths just to get a taste of what the Chief Factor takes for granted. One spilled pail of milk could cost them dearly on the wrong day. Even the cow, supposedly first in the territory, arrives on a river boat like a king, a proud and mighty “captain” of the vessel. And yet the circumstances behind the bovine’s lonesome voyage carries a burden equally as sad as the duo’s struggles.
Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt displays a unique state of calm in his standstill aesthetic. Having worked with Reichardt thrice before (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Night Moves” and “Certain Women”), he’s become attuned to her pace, and crafts a beautiful, alive image in tandem with the natural beauty of the Oregon frontier. The 4:3 aspect ratio captures so much in the intimate constraints of the frame. Unremarkable tasks such as sweeping, chopping wood or gathering water are characterized as vital and of great importance, a popular motif of Reichardt’s.
The simplicity of ambient noise creates a living, breathing atmosphere that encompasses the small things in life. It’s so still that a rushing stream can be well heard in the background. Tackling directorial, editorial and writing duties, as is the case with most of her work, it’s no wonder why Reichardt’s minimalist mood flows so smoothly.
A haunting discovery found within the rooted remains of the past, as they often are, transitions into the very difficult present that it occupied long ago. It brings about an important question of the past and concludes on an achingly poetic answer. “First Cow” is about the little victories in the vastness of life, catching one fish in a rapid river. Or in this case, it’s filling one pail of milk among a whole dairy farm. It is a film as delectable as Cookie and King Lu’s oily cakes; I adore it so — and that beautiful, beautiful brown cow.
A24’s “First Cow” is now on available on VOD!
Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.