The characters in Kelly Reichardt’s films are inextricable from the landscapes in which they exist. Dwarfed by the natural beauty and sometimes harsh conditions of the Pacific Northwest, the problems that they face seem insignificant when placed on a larger scale and yet eventually accrue a monumental meaning. Whether the focus is on early settlers stranded on barren terrain or eco-terrorists looking to take a violent stand or on a young woman trying to keep her head above water with no financial means, the environment looks on calmly, somehow both oblivious and keenly aware of the situation at hand.
With her latest, First Cow, Reichardt (working with writer and regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond) returns to the period piece trappings of Meek’s Cutoff but this time from a different angle. Whereas the settlers of Meek’s become increasingly lost and alone over the course of its narrative, the central characters of First Cow, Cookie and King Lu, begin by finding each other, as well as a community that they have an opportunity to thrive within.
Cookie (John Magaro) is a cook who has travelled west to Oregon with a group of fur trappers, hired to catch and prepare meals. While camping just outside of a makeshift village, he literally stumbles across King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man who is hiding out in the bushes, naked and alone, after a confrontation with his own travelling companions. Once Cookie’s group heads north and no longer needs his services, he becomes fast friends with King Lu and the two hatch a business idea. Utilizing Cookie’s skills, they start an operation to make “oily cakes” (an early form of the donut) that the local population can’t get enough of. To get the cream to make them, however, they have to clandestinely steal the milk of the only cow in the region, which belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a rich English landowner with incredible power and incredible ignorance. As Cookie and King Lu increase their profits, the risks in acquiring their ingredients becomes greater, with it becoming clear that this scheme can only last so long.
As is the norm with Kelly Reichardt, the ensuing dramatic tension is pretty low-key. Even the fateful moment where things go awry for our two heroes is presented in an amusingly matter-of-fact manner. But make no mistake – this is still enthralling stuff, as Reichardt has made it her signature to find the grandness in small moments. She avoids easy drama, allowing the story to develop and flow out organically from the characters, while recapturing the sense of wonder and possibility of a new America.
At the heart of First Cow is a friendship and Magaro and Lee have the easy chemistry of two outsiders who suddenly snap together in sync. When things become dire in the final stretch, their connection still brings a strange sense of levity to the film, eventually resulting in a truly moving and transcendent ending. She also sneaks in a relevant critique of American capitalism, especially through the eyes of the surrounding Native characters, observing from the sidelines while everybody tries to make a buck off their land.
Few modern filmmakers have understood the wild wild west so well.
- Rated: PG
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 3/13/2020
- Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
- Starring: Alia Shawkat, Ewen Bremner, John Magaro, Lily Gladstone, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones
- Produced by: Anish Savjani, Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino
- Written by: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
- Studio: Film Science