One of the things that sets Kelly Reichardt’s films apart is the way she pares down a story. You can see it in the spareness of Meek’s Cutoff, which has a simple premise: three settler families finding their way in the harsh desert landscape in Oregon in the 1840s. Or even a film like Wendy and Lucy–which is supposed to be about the great American open road, but instead of traveling to Alaska with her dog, the protagonist gets stuck in a small town on the way.
You get a sense of a similar approach when you read up about how Reichardt adapted the novel The Half-Life into the screenplay for her new film, First Cow. The novel is a 150 year-spanning, intercontinental story, with two tracks—one in the past, and one in the present. Reichardt took most of it out and added the cow, a symbol of early capitalism, and by bringing it into the film, she retained the main themes of the original story. This is as much out of necessity and practicality–since Reichardt works in low-budget, independent film territory–as it’s one of those genius strokes of screenwriting that demonstrates how to bring a sprawling story to a simple form. It must be said here that her co-writer in all the above mentioned films is Jon Raymond—who wrote The Half-Life—and is the person responsible for her making so many movies that are set in the American Northwest.
These films are all the more rich for Reichardt’s masterful showcasing of minutiae. I read that she made her crew watch Woman in the Dunes, another film about textures (Ugetsu and Pather Panchali being the other two), as a reference for First Cow, and it makes sense, because her interest in the chores in the film is obsessive: whether it’s the handiwork by womenfolk, the gentle milking of the cow, the constant housework that Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are involved in when they set up their place in the woods.
Watching Reichardt in interviews talk about her love for filming these “processes” give the impression that her primary motivations as a filmmaker really lie in the subtle pleasures. And maybe that explains why First Cow is such an unusual film about pioneering in 19th century America. Cookie arrives at the idea of stealing some of that milk from the titular first cow to arrive at the Oregon territory not because he has grand plans of making big bucks, but almost out of a whim; he is “tired of this flour-and-water bread,” and craves some cookies, scones, or butter biscuits. Business is only an afterthought once Lu’s entrepreneurial acumen comes to play, along with Cookie’s baking skills–a combination as good as milk and cookies. Their deep fried “oily cakes”, sprinkled with cinnamon and dabbed with honey, are an instant hit in the local market.
Reichardt has made it her style to take the most American of genres—the frontier tale, the road movie, buddy picture—and retell them in her own fashion, bringing along her own politics and gaze. In the case of films like Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow, she’s also dealing with one of the oldest of these genres, historically painted in epic sweeps. One major artistic choice in these two films is not allowing us views of the landscape in all their widescreen glory, but rather make us feel the predicament of the characters by using a boxy aspect ratio.
In First Cow, the framings within framings—cramped with forest, windows, thorn bush—accentuate that claustrophobia. Cookie and King Lu live virtually like outlaws, but not how we have conventionally seen them in films. The men share a tender friendship in a grimy world of survival. A sense of doom runs through the film, as hinted by the film’s present-day prologue, and heightened by the danger lurking King Lu, who is Chinese (another “revisionism” of the classic frontier tale, that posits that the land of abundance and opportunity had seekers from all around the world, including some Russian fur trappers, who are looking for Lu). But Reichardt and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, treats the arrival-of-the-cow from the rest of the film differently: bathed in glorious morning light, she arrives on a raft almost as if a scene of miracle from the Bible. It does bring a miraculous change in their fates, even if it’s short-lived.
First Cow will stream on Mubi from July 9