Monday, July 13, 2020

A Gentle Friendship in the West

First Cow (2019) - Reichardt
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First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's new film, based on a novel, Half Life by her long time writing partner Jon Raymond (who also adapts here with Reichardt), is thing of a beauty from start to finish. It starts with an William Blake quote - "The Bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." Friendship here concerns between Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a beaver trapping party cook in an Oregon trail and King-hu (Orion Lee), a prospector on the run. When they first meet, King-hu is naked and starving, hounded by Russians who think he crossed them on a deal. Mild mannered Cookie isn't quite welcomed in his own party, as they aggressively bully and threaten him with violence. Cookie helps the Chinaman food and shelter over night. The next time they meet, they are in Fort Tillicum, a small outpost in the woods. They start sharing King-hu's shack in the woods, dreaming of going south and opening up businesses there. There is a cow that is brought up from San Francisco in the order of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a proper English gentleman who drinks needs milk in his tea. The cow is said to be the first one in this part of the woods. The cow had its mate and a calf, but they didn't make the long journey, they say. Any type of bread is hard to come by those days, and Cookie mentions making some milk bisquits, if he only had milk, to King-hu in passing. King-hu, more entrepreneurial of the two, suggests they milk the Chief's cow at night to make bake goods and sell it. Who's gonna know?

With this simple premise, an unusual Western in the Reichardt way, unfolds. Reichardt's deliverately gentle tone and two gentle protagonists are polar opposite of the Wild West told in film we are used to. And just like her Meek's Cutoff, Reichardt redefines it with First Cow. This early days of America (at least in the prospecting west) back then, was ethnically very diverse and in too much of a survivalist mode to be overtly racist yet. It's good to see the presence of Lily Gladstone (Certain Women) and Gary Farmer in an interesting and perfectly fitting cast. I mean, where else would you see a western about a couple of gentle souls with their small dreams other than in a Kelly Reichardt film? As usual, shot in 16mm, 4:3 academy ratio by Christopher Blauvelt, the mossy forest of Pacific Northwest has never been more beautiful. And with gentle, fitting music by William Tyler, First Cow is one of those rare, perfect movies in every single way. It's something you want to cherish for years to come. Now I want some oily cake with honey.