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American Pastoral: Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”

“It’s not capturing grand landscapes, but people who have very small lives.”

The 1820s Oregon frontier setting of director Kelly Reichardt’s latest feature is not really a frontier at all. Humans had occupied what would become the United States for over 12,000 years. The fur trappers, who are killing off the beaver, are immigrants to this land. Their cook, “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a stranger both to the territory and the men he feeds. King Lu (Orion Lee), on the run from angry Russians is an ocean away from his homeland in China. Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the wealthiest man in town, hails from England. Even the Native Americans of the region once walked to the continent from Asia. However, the most foreign character is probably the cow.

That cow is the titular character of First Cow, the story of Cookie, a talented cook, who quietly forages mushrooms for a raucous band of trappers, and King Lu, a man on the run from something and to something. The two outsiders befriend one another and soon hatch a money-making scheme. At King Lu’s urging, they steal milk from Chief Factor’s cow to use as an ingredient in Cookie’s “oily cakes,” which quickly become a sensation among the luxury-deprived community. Their plan is to earn enough money to move on to San Francisco and start a business.

In a conversation for The Atlantic, Reichardt spoke with one of her biggest fans, recent Academy Award winner, Bong Joon-Ho, about creating a connection between two actors and two characters who have just met.

“The chemistry between the two men is amazing,” said director Bong. “They both feel so vulnerable.”

“When we were shooting, we had them go into the woods for three or four nights with a survivalist,” explained Reichardt. “They learned how to build a fire without matches and to trap, and it was cold and rainy. We did this instead of rehearsing—this is how they bonded.”

Orion Lee (left) and John Magaro in “First Cow,” courtesy of A24

The story, loosely adapted from the novel, The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, was written for the screen by Raymond and Reichardt. It moves slowly, languorously, until Reichardt wants your attention, when she will make you sit up and take notice.

The look of the film echos the storytelling, spare, but focused. The filmmaker found inspiration in the paintings of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, and films like Ugetsu and Woman in the Dunes.

This is the fourth collaboration for cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and Reichardt. He manages to concentrate the images into the director’s preferred, boxy, Academy ratio (1.37:1). “I really like the square,” she told The Atlantic. “There’s room up top and on the bottom for the trees, and for the close-ups, it’s so nice. And the economy of it: It’s not capturing grand landscapes, but people who have very small lives.”

Read more: The Film That You Might Not Hear About But Have to See

Blauvelt blends the characters into the natural world which surrounds them, shooting through leaves or framing the shot with branches. Visually, we are told that the men are as comfortable in the forest as they are with one another.

In contrast, the cow, the first cow in the territory as the title tells us, stands out from the forest. It is a symbol as integral to the American story as manifest destiny, which drove all of these characters west. Bong observed that the cow “is part of a very primitive state of capitalism and commerce.”

Read more: The Director Whose Movies Make Bong Joon Ho Jealous

“It’s this early seed of capitalism—can capitalism work with the natural world? There’s this hubris, the idea that these natural elements will be endless. In fact the beaver trade collapsed very quickly,” said Reichardt.

“We see Cookie picking mushrooms, and it would be best if he managed to find the milk he eventually needs naturally,” Bong explains. “But the milk is already possessed by someone. When we learn about Marxism, we learn about who owns the modes of production, and that’s where the drama unfolds. It’s very interesting—you’re seeing the birth of U.S. capitalism.”

From “First Cow,” courtesy of A24

“First Cow is magnificent in its evocation of period and its tactile, almost hyper-real images of the natural world—none of which comes as a surprise after Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s previous foray into the western past, Meek’s Cutoff,” writes Imogen Sara Smith. The look and feel of the two films could not be further apart: the earlier movie all parched, wide-open spaces gilded by cruelly beautiful sunlight, the new one all moist, verdant, and claustrophobically dense.

Read more: What Kelly Reichardt Learned from Directing First Cow, Her Gentle Masterpiece

“The old-fashioned, almost square aspect ratio of First Cow adds to the closed-in feeling and enhances the resemblance to period genre paintings like the luminous river scenes of George Caleb Bingham (suggested by the lovely image of the cow floating downstream on a flatboat),” she continues. “Iconic images like the wandering fiddler in the palisaded fort are anchored by the realism of mud and grimy hands and grubby taverns, and perfectly accompanied by William Tyler’s spare, folky acoustic score.” To read the full article, click here.

The film is ostensibly a western, but Reichardt distinguishes it from the classic Hollywood genre. There are no gunfights or fusillades of arrows flying at our protagonists, but rather “the monotony of what was to come with moving across the country and just the hard work of doing everything,” she said in an interview for Film at Lincoln Center. 

As a complete filmmaker who often writes, directs and edits her films, like her protagonists, Reichardt understands how to do it all. “Starting a fire or making dinner or everything. There’s so much toil involved. So the focus is a lot on the small tasks.”

Reichardt sums up First Cow as “A story of friendship and two, less than masculine, men trying to survive in this rough and tumble place that doesn’t know what it is yet.”

First Cow was released in several theaters in the U.S., but was subsequently pulled as the audience stayed away as a reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. A24 will rerelease the film later in the year when movie attendance gets back to normal. Streaming and VOD releases to follow.