★★★★ - STUFF
- Kelly Reichardt is as idiosyncratic as they come.
Her films are distinguishable and more or less immediately recognisable, by their quietness, their intense focus on small lives lived out in small communities and the wit and grace to acknowledge that every human life and human settlement lives cheek-by-jowl with a far greater kingdom of animals and insects, who will rightly reclaim what is theirs just as soon as we are gone.
I think it's this sense of permeability, the knowledge that the birds and the fish and the rats are always with us, maybe just outside of our sight or hearing, that I enjoy the most about Reichardt's writing and direction. So while I found her alleged Western Meek's Cutoff one of the most pointless and frustrating films I saw in 2010, I did at least admire how her settler characters inhabited the landscape, seemingly a part of it and yet also a parasite which the earth would soon enough shake off.
There's a similar sensibility here, in First Cow, which is Reichardt's adaptation of frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half Life.
After a brief present-day introduction, which adds only poignancy to the story that follows, we are sent back to 1820, to Reichardt's beloved Oregon, and an obnoxious and mostly insensible pack of fur trappers, anxiously but drunkenly making their way to the relative safety of a fort with their pelts and skins. Accompanying the gang is the luckless Cookie (The Big Short’s John Magaro), who is unenviably tasked with finding and cooking enough food to keep the fractious party alive.
Stumbling – literally – across a Chinese man, on the run for an alleged murder, Cookie's life takes a turn for the odd, which will soon enough have him and his new friend Lu (Orion Lee) involved in a scheme that involves clandestinely milking a cow – the only cow for miles around – and using that precious milk to bake biscuits, to then sell to the hungry men and women of the settlement.
Which ends about as well as clandestine schemes ever do, in 1820s Oregon, or in movies in general.
First Cow has a slow unfurling that is open to many interpretations. That there is a satire of America and the way it decides the ownership and distribution of its native wealth is only the most obvious, literal and uninteresting of ways to tilt this particular prism.
However you choose to read it, have no doubt this is a lyrical, beautifully performed and gently engrossing ballad of a film. Faced with this amount of honesty, artistry and commitment to a vision, whether or not I actually enjoy Reichardt's films seems almost quaintly irrelevant.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
First Cow is now playing at Light House Cuba!