Here I go with another attempt at a Kelly Reichardt movie. I was, as I said at the time, "bored shitless" by Old Joy. I had an easier time with Wendy and Lucy, which had the benefit of a fine performance by the reliable Michelle Williams. I wrote of both movies that they had "a good feel for nature (and the beautiful cinematography to go with it), a lack of a narrative thrust, and the willingness to take the time to let the film develop (if “develop” is the right word)." That is the defining feature of the Reichardt movies I've seen ... she takes her time. First Cow begins with a slow shot of a barge on a river moving from left to right across the screen. It takes a good 75 seconds before Reichardt cuts away, and honestly, I have no idea why the shot is even in the movie. It looks nice, but even there, we're up against an interesting situation, for Reichardt has chosen to shoot her film at 1.37:1, while the long barge seems made for a widescreen. Next we see Alia Shawkat on the beach picking at things in the dirt, and I like Alia Shawkat and looked forward to seeing what she was up to. (Spoiler alert: this turns out to be her only scene in the entire movie.) Her dog alerts her to something odd in the dirt, which turns out to be two skeletons lying side by side.
I'll return to this opening later. For now, suffice to say that the movie really begins after that scene. We're in Oregon in the early 19th-century. The central character is a chef who picks up the nickname "Cookie". He soon meets up with a Chinese immigrant (King-Lu), and their budding friendship is the heart of First Cow. Reichardt offers this quote from William Blake after the opening credits: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." Neither man fits in well in the community. They are reminiscent of the men in Old Joy, yet what I hated about that earlier movie was the relationship between the men. I find Cookie and King-Lu to be much more congenial, and I didn't mind the slow pace as we got to know them and they got to know each other. First Cow is 40+ minutes longer than the other movies, but it was less boring to me.
Eventually a plot arrives. Cookie looks back on the delicious buttermilk biscuits he had eaten in the past, says milk would make the dry "bread" of the camp a lot more enjoyable, but there's no milk in that neck of the woods. Except the richest person in the area has acquired a cow. There were supposed to be three, but the male and the baby died in transit, leaving only the mom. While he awaits the arrival of another bull, he at least appreciates that he can use the cow for milk. Of course, Cookie and King-Lu have figured out the same thing.
There's no need to say more ... even a low-key movie like this has spoilers. Meanwhile, Reichardt gives us what is essentially a Western, with many of the typical themes of the genre: man in the wilderness, on the frontier, civilization gradually making headway. It's all very subtle, and adds to the overall feel that First Cow is deeper than it appears.
Ah, but there's that first scene. Not sure how much of a spoiler this is, given that what I'm about to describe takes place in the first minutes of the movie. Although I was clueless about basic information like what Alia Shawkat was wearing, it becomes apparent that her scene took place in modern times. (I say "apparent", but I actually didn't even notice until later when I read about the film.) There are other possible connections between her scene and what happens in the 19th century, although Reichardt leaves everything ambiguous. Since I am regularly frustrated when something I watch says "five months earlier" after an opening scene, you'd think I would admire the way Reichardt lets us figure it out for ourselves. Since I didn't figure it out until long past the end of the movie, though, well, color me frustrated.
Still, I liked First Cow at least as much as I liked Wendy and Lucy. Kelly Reichardt has a very specific, personal style of film making, and more power to her. It really helps, though, if you know going in that she will force you to slow down to her pace.
This video essay by Thomas Flight does an excellent job of making a case for the excellence of First Cow. It makes me feel a bit dumb, but in a good way, because I learned from it. Don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie. #126 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.