Film

MIFF opening night film First Cow follows the austere and sophisticated path of director Kelly Reichardt’s previous works but is stymied by its small-screen showing and the underdeveloped ‘buddy’ relationship at its core. By Christos Tsiolkas.

First Cow

Orion Lee as King-Lu and John Magaro as Cookie in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.
Credit: Allyson Riggs

Kelly Reichardt’s new film, First Cow, was the opening night choice for this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. The pandemic has forced the festival to restructure how it delivers films to its audience. This year films are streamed directly into people’s homes, and there is an inevitable attenuation of the program. But in any year, First Cow would have been an excellent choice for an opening night film. Reichardt is one of the most talented and intelligent filmmakers currently working in the United States.

I watched First Cow with my partner, and we did our best to simulate the cinematic experience in our lounge room. We turned off all the lights, he graciously acceded to my demand that we watch the film in “real time” and not pause for toilet breaks or for the munchies, and we watched it on the biggest screen available in our house. Yet as the end credits started rolling, I turned to him and shrugged. “It’s not the bloody same, is it?”

This isn’t a digression; I think it has real consequences for my evaluation of the work. There’s an ostensible simplicity in Reichardt’s choices as a director, in how she eschews big budgets and special effects and instead hones a style focused on the beauty of the natural environment and the intimacy of performance. Yet she is a remarkably sophisticated filmmaker, both in the breadth of her cinematic knowledge and the intellectual complexity with which her films deal with the history of the exploitation of the American landscape. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt has collaborated with Reichardt across four films, and is a master of chiaroscuro lighting. The small screen can’t help but diminish the results of their collaboration, particularly the fragile beauty of night scenes filmed in largely natural light. The verdant colours of day scenes remain breathtaking, but I missed seeing them in the panoramic scale afforded by the cinema screen.

First Cow is set in 1820 in the Oregon Territory. It follows the adventures of a young, naive man, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), who is travelling as a chef attached to a party of fur trappers. One evening he comes across King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is on the run after killing a Russian man. Cookie assists the fugitive, and after he has left the abusive company of the trappers, he meets him again in a gambling saloon. King-Lu invites Cookie to move in with him to the cold, one-room hut where he lives at the edge of a nascent township.

One night as they discuss their respective hopes, Cookie reveals he dreams of moving to San Francisco to open a bakery or a restaurant. Earlier, they had spotted that Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a rich English landowner, had transported the first European cow to Oregon. King-Lu suggests they steal into the Englishman’s property at night to milk the cow so that Cookie can make biscuits for them to sell in the rudimentary markets of the settlement. The biscuits and cakes prove a big success and King-Lu is confident they can finally make their fortune. The drama of First Cow comes from how these hopes are dashed by the venality and power of the English landowner.

Robert Altman’s astonishing 1971 western, McCabe & Mrs Miller, is a clear influence on First Cow. As with the Altman film, Reichardt is attentive in depicting the tenuousness of the emerging settlements on the frontier. The buildings are ramshackle, the saloons little more than shacks, and grime and mud plaster the men’s skin and clothes. Like Altman, Reichardt is deliberately subverting the romantic myths of the traditional western.

She adds one more crucial layer to this subversion by populating the settlement with Native Americans dispossessed of their traditional lands. Chief Factor’s wife is an indigenous woman played by the formidable Lily Gladstone, and the day-to-day running of the estate depends on indigenous labour. It’s a subtle, unobtrusive layering but its consequences are, of course, immense. The resulting tensions between Factor’s “Indians” and those of the immigrants will affect the relationship between First Nations peoples and Settler Americans to this day.

There is also a similarity in the characters of King-Lu and Warren Beatty’s John McCabe. Both men evince a recklessness that will prove their undoing. Unlike the more fearful Cookie, King-Lu trusts that his bravado will be a match for Chief Factor. But just as McCabe is finally hunted down and killed by the mercenaries hired by railway magnates, Chief Factor’s money and power ensure his victory.

What First Cow lacks is a character as abrasive and as complicated as Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller for Orion Lee to play against. Lee is a dynamic, sensual actor, and he keeps us guessing about his motivations. He is always compelling. Particularly in the scenes where he sets up house with King-Lu and in his tender taming of the cow, Magaro’s performance has charm and sweetness, but his boyishness soon becomes cloying.

The script is based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life and co-written by Reichardt and Raymond. There are faint echoes in the screenplay of the George Roy Hill-directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and of Robert Benton’s 1972 Bad Company; both are also revisionist westerns but are more interested in the buddy relationships of their main characters than in interrogating the myths and politics of the genre.

The homoerotic subtext of the relationship between Butch and The Kid was always an open secret and I remember some of us sniggering about it as children in the playground. First Cow begins with a scene set in the present day where a young woman’s dog unearths the bones of King-Lu and Cookie, their skeletons entwined for eternity. Of course we understand that the cultural mores of the early 19th century might have excluded the expression of sexual love between the men. What is less understandable is the complete erasure of the erotic in the framing and visualising of their story.

This chastity weakens First Cow and compromises Lee’s performance. One of the most disturbing yet galvanising elements of the Altman film is that Mrs Miller is an English madam, and that one of the first buildings to be constructed in the new settlement is her brothel. Mrs Miller, especially played with the whip-smart energy of Christie, can’t be fooled by McCabe’s romantic delusions. From childhood she has known the exact cost of money and exchange. The portentous themes of First Cow, its desire to critique American capitalism and racism, are at odds with the emotional incoherence of its buddy romance. This confusion entirely undermines the tragic pathos in their story that Reichardt is clearly aiming for.

The film’s confusion of purpose is especially surprising when comparing First Cow with Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff. That film is absolutely rigorous in its intentions, recasting the classical formal mise en scène of the John Ford western to place women and Native Americans at the core of the narrative. Meek’s Cutoff is uncompromising and profoundly moving. Her 2016 Certain Women partakes of a similar austerity, and it too is emotionally complex in its portrayal of how differences of class and the divergence of rural and urban life affect the emotional and sexual choices made by women.

I wonder if I may have appreciated First Cow more if I had seen it on the cinema screen. It’s possible I may have come out into the night air and, in immediate, excited conversations with friends, found myself reflecting on nuances I had overlooked. It is this social aspect of cinema I deeply miss and that I cannot wait to return to post-lockdown.

On the other hand, I saw Reichardt’s 2013 film, Night Moves, at home. That film impressed me with the precise tension of its scenes, the lambency of its images and its complex questioning of the morality of ecological radicalism. It is an adult movie, while First Cow seems immature. The complex possibilities in King-Lu and Cookie’s relationship are resisted. They’re both really nice boys but I would have been more interested in seeing a film about the men they could have been.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2020 as "Bovine intervention".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.