We begin in true Kelly Reichardt style with a long slow shot that lets us take in the slow movement of a river and the sounds of a forest. We are in present day and watch as a woman (Alia Shawkat) unearths a bone, then uncovers two skeletons lying side by side.
You’ll remember this scene at the end as, for much of this earthy, languid story of early white settlement in Oregon, you are immersed in the world of two men. Cookie (John Magaro – Leonard in Umbrella Academy) travels with a mob of fur trappers who deride him for his inability to scavenge for food. He comes across a desperate man in the forest, Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), and secretly offers him shelter.
When the group arrives at a fortified town, the two men settle and talk of ways to transcend their hand to mouth existence. When they see a cow (Evie – yes she has a credit) arriving on a river barge, property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), they see a chance to steal her milk and make some money.
If you have seen any other Reichardt films, such as Certain Women (2016), Wendy and Lucy (2008) or Old Joy (2006), you’ll know that she takes her time to tell a story and, through sound and cinematography, makes you feel like you are within the wild and sparse nature of the film’s environment. With First Cow, we get a sense of the harshness of frontier life, the cold and hunger, the ever-present mud and privation. In many way she turns the genre of Westerns on its head, subverting our expectations of heroism, good and evil.
These are white men (and they are pretty much all men in this story), who are driven by the promise of wealth in a new land and see it as theirs for the taking. We get a glimpse of the First Nations people but it is not heartening; they are represented in the fortifications of the town and a few women and children on the periphery, including Lily Gladstone who was so luminous in Certain Women and here is relegated to a few moments on screen.
The heart of the film, and what makes it watchable, is the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu. They are mismatched in many ways – Cookie is a quiet achiever whereas King-Lu has ambition – but they seem drawn together through a need for connection in a world that is hostile. We are not sure they are really cut out for a pioneering life, where cunning, ruthlessness and privilege seem to be the only things that guarantee survival. You can’t quite shake a feeling of foreboding although Reichardt’s focus on the minutiae of their life is absorbing.
There are some well-known faces in minor characters, who play a part as catalysts or background colour but without much depth. Rene Auberjonois is notable as ‘Man with Raven’, one of his last performances before his death, and I would have liked to see more of Lloyd, played by gobby Scot Ewen Bremner.
The film comes together, for me, with the ending. It had a pathos greater than the story that we have been shown and encompasses what might be the real message of the film.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.