Friday 16 July 2021

Cookie's fortune: "First Cow"

The cinema of Kelly Reichardt is full of unlikely alliances in the middle of nowhere. Think back to the housewife and the fugitive in Reichardt's 1994 debut River of Grass; to the yin-and-yang hikers of 2006's Old Joy; and to Wendy and her dog Lucy, and - more specifically - to Wendy and the people she encounters in the search for Lucy. First Cow, the latest of Reichardt's small-scale, eccentric yet not untruthful Western parables, rips from the pages of Jon Raymond's novel The Half-Life a pair of men who find and redefine themselves against the backdrop of the North American gold rush. Cookie (John Magaro) starts the film as the put-upon chef to a party of trappers, pilloried for coming back from his daily foraging sessions with more mushrooms than meat. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is the Chinese prospector Cookie finds shivering naked outside his tent one night, having apparently shot dead a Russian rival. The two men share a dream of improving their station in life, established in the tentatively cordial conversations that make up the bulk of the film's first half. The idea they might be permanently joined at the hip - made for one another - has already been floated by a prologue in which a latter-day dogwalker (bearing the immediately recognisable freckles of Alia Shawkat, clearly keen to do something, anything in a Kelly Reichardt movie) unearths two human skeletons in the woods, buried side-by-side.

While we wait for exact confirmation of the skeletons' identity, one thing becomes clear: for an ode to bonhomie and togetherness, First Cow is defiantly singular. The set-up proposes a sort of buddy comedy, uniting polar opposites in pursuit of a common goal, but the film's rhythms are unlike any buddy comedy you've ever seen. First Cow moves slowly, so as not to frighten the livestock; it treads softly, so as not to flatten the grass. It's often funny, but it's never caught reaching for its jokes; instead, it seems almost to stumble across its laughs (which are more like chuckles, really) in the film's occasional clearings. It's also obviously A Film About Something, but it doesn't immediately bash you over the head with what that Something is. At a time when the bulk of American movies have accelerated in speed and started giving up whatever goods they have from the off - so the thickos in the back row know exactly where they are, for once - Reichardt has dug in and held steady. Notice how content she is just to sit back and watch as Cookie and King-Lu bond and come up with a plan of action for themselves, in the log cabin they've appropriated as both a business base and a bachelor pad. Throughout, she displays a mapmaker's patience: she describes the lay of this particular land, leaving space for discovery; she sketches in the key details; and then - only then - sends her characters out into this world on the mission that might just make them their fortune. Those of us looking on get pulled in, because we want to know what's up ahead and round the next corner.

If you've cast even half an eye over Film Twitter in the past 18 months, you'll know what that mission entails, yet its placing within the film indicates that Raymond and Reichardt always intended it to come as a revelation or joke of sorts - a way of paying off the early, comic-Herzogian image of a cow being floated down river on a raft, and precisely the last thing you'd expect anyone to make money doing in a place this rough and ready. It will involve Toby Jones as a representative of the landowner class, although he's held back until hour two, the thespian equivalent of an impact sub. In the meantime, the main action makes a strong case for casting lesser known faces in lead roles: it gives the camera more to reveal, and the audience more to discover. Cookie and King-Lu aren't conventional Western heroes, rather men on the margins, so it makes sense to cast relative strangers; in a way, they occupy the same tight spots in 19th-century society as independent-minded creatives like Reichardt do in this century, trying to make enough dough to get by in a system that's been rigged in favour of an elite few, and which patently couldn't care less about anybody else. That struggle is all but etched into Magaro's downward-turned features - in a glance, we understand Cookie is a great worrier - but the actor also reveals an appealing meekness: for some while, he seems more comfortable around the cow than he does around his fellow bipeds. Lee is more forward-facing, as befits a character who's come all the way from over there to a locale as lawless as this; and the two leads work well together as comrades, co-conspirators, two men quietly building their own small empire. One of the film's slow-drip pleasures is watching Magaro bring Cookie out of his shell as the pair's enterprise takes off: money will do that to a guy, for better and worse.

Does Reichardt risk going a little too slow late on? Possibly. First Cow has the most conventional shape of any Reichardt film, in that it's heading towards a showdown, but it's being nudged in that direction by a filmmaker who isn't one for quickening the pace or the heartbeat. That gives us time to savour this world, and to think about what Reichardt means to convey about the foundations of the American dream, but when Magaro and Lee aren't sharing the screen - and events conspire to sunder them pretty decisively - the gaps between their fond words become apparent, maybe even yawning. (Bottom line: we want to see these dreamers together again.) Yet the miracle of this cinema, mostly sustained over these two hours, is how Reichardt conveys such a rich appreciation of American life, given her square frames and notionally simple images. Partly it's because those little boxes always feel fully inhabited, hinting at entire worlds beyond the corners of those frames; partly it derives from this filmmaker's understanding that America is as much the sum total of its people and personalities as it is of its places. She's a rare mapmaker with an eye for human interest (and human folly), which is why First Cow's community extends beyond Jones's amusingly fussy privilege to encompass Ewen Bremner as a muddy-faced enforcer, and a native American contingent headed by Gary Farmer and Certain Women's Lily Gladstone. Reichardt, too, is building - or rebuilding - an empire from scratch: in any future survey of the 21st century Western, this odd charmer wouldn't look out of place in a teatime slot before the ferocious post-watershed idiosyncrasy of David Milch's HBO masterpiece Deadwood. I can bestow no higher praise on First Cow than that.

First Cow is now streaming on MUBI, ahead of its DVD release on August 9. 

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