I was lucky enough to watch a preview of First Cow in a cinema (remember those?) at the end of February, with Kelly Reichardt in attendance. At the time, the only other one of her films I’d seen was Certain Women and I’m glad that I’ve now taken the time to catch up on the rest of her filmography (with one notable exception) before discussing First Cow in any depth. I feel I now have a much better understanding and appreciation of her concerns and themes and how they feed into her latest piece, First Cow. Take a look at the bottom of this review for an overview of Reichardt’s other work.
Two things immediately strike you about First Cow in the first couple of minutes – one is the unusual aspect ratio (1.37:1) which is used to magnificent effect throughout the film and the other is that when the film opens, we are in the present day. There is a brief prologue at the start, with a cameo from a fantastic actress (I won’t spoil) who discovers two skeletons, buried together, seemingly holding hands. We are then transported to the 1820s and are introduced to the magnificently-named Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) who is desperately trying to forage food for the beaver trappers he is working for. He stumbles across a naked Chinese man in the woods – this is King Lu (Orion Lee) who is on the run. At the local Fort we are introduced to Lloyd (Ewen Bremner using his natural Scottish accent) in a saloon where the detail of the production design by Anthony Gasparro and costume design by April Napier can truly be appreciated. The half-coins and shells being used for betting, trading and bartering are one of the most pleasing details. They discuss the arrival of the titular first cow to the territory – “this is no place for cows, God wouldda put them here if it was” and Lloyd responds with “well it’s no place for white men then either.”
The aspect ratio especially works when framing scenes set in enclosed spaces (a tent or hut), with sight-lines out through a doorway or window to the wilderness beyond. There is an extremely thin line between the creation of domesticity inside and the ancient forest out in open nature. King invites Cookie to his home, which is a wooden shack and they immediately fall into the roles that will define their relationship for the rest of the film. King goes out to chop firewood and Cookie starts sweeping the bare mud floor indoors. King is ambitious – a take-charge entrepreneur and Cookie is just happy to use the baking skills he learned in Boston. King comes up with a nefarious scheme to milk the “first cow” at night, without permission and use the milk to make “oily cakes” (basically beignets), sell them at the fort and make enough to open a hotel in San Francisco. Cookie forms a sweet relationship with the cow, based on mutual respect – the first thing he says to her is “sorry about your husband” because the cow’s mate and their calf died during the transport to this remote and inhospitable land.
Toby Jones’ Chief Factor comes into the film halfway through and is immediately impressed by Cookie and his cakes “I taste London in this cake.” He instructs Cookie to bake a clafoutis and bring it to the palatial home he shares with his indigenous wife played by Lily Gladstone (Certain Women). He discusses the latest Paris fashions with the Captain (Scott Shepherd), which is a hilarious juxtaposition with this muddy wilderness. King later reminds Cookie that “there are no empire silhouettes or colours du jour for us.”
The music by William Tyler is only present over the opening titles and then comes in again for the final ten minutes of the film, emphasising the film’s cyclical nature. It’s a gorgeous lilting finger-plucking bluegrass-style guitar track that works perfectly over the film’s beautiful final moments. The cinematography is by Christopher Blauvelt who shot Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (released earlier this year), which could not be more of a visual contrast. There is only around twenty years between the events of First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff, but the land here seems extremely untapped and untamed. Reichardt (adapting a novel by John Raymond) has created a totally different kind of Western which puts the focus on a gentle man and his simple dream, entirely without the hubris of the wider American Dream. Cookie is a wonderful creation and Magaro’s performance is one of the best of the year.
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones
If First Cow has piqued your interest in Kelly Reichardt, see below for a brief overview of some of her other films and for much more depth and detail, check out Seventh Row’s latest book – Roads to Nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s Broken American Dreams which includes interviews with Reichardt herself, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, costume designer April Napier, actors John Magaro and Lily Gladstone and many many more.
N/A Wendy & Lucy (2008)
I refuse to watch Wendy and Lucy because it’s a sad movie with a dog in it. I’ve been reliably informed by plenty of people I trust that it’s one of, if not, THE best Reichardt though, so seek it out if you have the stomach for it!
6. Night Moves (2013)
Set in Reichardt’s beloved Oregon, Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Fanning play eco-warriors who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Perhaps the most plot-heavy of any of Reichardt’s films, but still with restrained performances. I didn’t really like any of the characters and while I sympathised with their intentions, their plans seemed naive and foolhardy. Kind of a ridiculous plot with a bad ending.
5. Certain Women (2016)
This would be higher up my ranking if it were just a film about Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart’s characters, which is the only memorable thread in this portmanteau. Laura Dern’s storyline goes too far in one direction – in terms of being over-the-top and melodramatic (similar to her Marriage Story lawyer character) and Michelle Williams goes too far in the opposite direction – nothing happens to her, we don’t learn anything about her and therefore don’t care. Gladstone and Stewart’s performances are pitch-perfect, on the other hand and their relationship was the only aspect of this film that I was invested in. Yes, over-all it is an effective portrayal of women’s loneliness in rural America (this time in Montana, not Oregon) but I’ve seen better ones in recent years such as Little Woods. Lily Gladstone is utterly magnetic though and I wish she were getting many more opportunities in film and television.
4. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Reichardt has collaborated with Michelle Williams three times but this is not the strongest aspect of her work, in my opinion. Meek’s Cutoff does have a roster of quality actors, however – Shirley Henderson (who I adore), Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan (I believe this is when the real-life couple met), Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood (as the titular Meek). It follows a small wagon-train of settlers in Oregon (of course) who lose faith in their leader Meek and instead capture an indigenous man who they believe knows the land better and can lead them to water. One of the greatest strengths of Meek’s Cutoff, which Reichardt deploys again in First Cow is the almost square aspect ratio (1.33:1 in this case). It’s a very different approach to most westerns which emphasise wide shots of vast landscapes and focuses the eye much more on the human story. It also enhances the difficult terrain that the wagons are having to navigate. The costuming by Vicki Farrell is another excellent aspect of this film.
3. Old Joy (2006)
The first of Reichardt’s two examinations of male friendship (with First Cow being the second), this film follows two dudes going into the Oregon wilderness for a weekend of pot-smoking and philosophical musings. Nothing really happens, just vibes. It’s wonderful and uses another sweet aspect ratio (1.66:1).
2. First Cow (2020)
See full review above!
1. River of Grass (1994)
The only one of Reichardt’s films to be set in her native Miami-Dade County, Florida, River of Grass has less of the reverential tone of wonder and awe that she clearly feels for the American wilderness of Oregon and Montana. River of Grass is dirty, grimy and shot in gritty 16mm. It’s a 90s independent film with a totally different atmosphere to the rest of her work and the road trip aspect has the 70s feel of Paris, Texas or Badlands. This film has my favourite performance of any of Reichardt’s films – Lisa Donaldson as Cozy. Most Kelly fanatics seem to like this one the least, but I loved it.