Got Milk

Kelly Reichardt, First Cow 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 121 minutes. Cookie (John Magaro) and the cow (Eve).

LAST YEAR, in Italy, researchers revealed that a pair of ancient skeletons, found hand in hand and so styled “the lovers of Modena,” were in fact both male. Who were these two people, frozen in an eternal embrace? Kelly Reichardt’s new film begins with a kindred enigma: a dyad exhumed in modern Oregon by a woman (Alia Shawkat) ambling along the riverbank with her dog, who snuffs the bones among the reeds. Brushing aside the pup, she digs first with idle interest, then enthrallment, filmed with a languor that lulls us into Reichardt’s measured rhythms, which swell into quiet suspense. Minutes before, in the opening shot, a static camera captured a barge’s laggard passage in a tribute to the spare landscapes and maritime scenes of the late filmmaker Peter Hutton—the movie’s dedicatee—who once told an interviewer that his work offered “a little detour from such grand concepts” as the history of cinema via frames unfraught with plot. By slowing us into her loping stride, Reichardt, too, offers a detour with First Cow, a minor fable mounted with modest precision.

From there, the movie shifts to 1820s Oregon Country, still just a tenuous mess of settlements. No signposts attend the time change, only a cut, so that the centuries seem contiguous and the present porous, past-haunted. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) forages for a roving crew of fur trappers that he’s victualing as a cook, hence the sobriquet. Bending to the underbrush, he stumbles upon King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man, cowering naked as Adam in the Edenic verdure, who claims to be a soldier of fortune on the lam after a gunfight with some Russian roughnecks. Or so the tale goes. Cookie takes it on faith and conceals him back at camp, where his tetchy bosses sling abuses in the face of his timidity. These buckskinned frontiersmen are the Manifest Destiny’s main agents of despoliation, but we sense that Cookie lacks their will to conquer. Consider how Reichardt, long the editor of her fine-tuned films, lingers on a close-up of him stooping meekly to right a belly-up salamander—a moment that is poignant in its pointless grace.

Cookie soon befriends King-Lu, himself unmoored as a nonwhite immigrant despite canny ambitions and an agile intellect. Some time later, after a brief parting, the men meet again at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post, a mucky shantytown not only suggestive of the production design of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) but also sharing with that film the departed character actor René Auberjonois, here a threadbare codger who goggles at the protagonists’ changing fortunes from the fort’s outskirts. King-Lu lures Cookie with whiskey to his forest shack, where, with no preamble, they fall into reflexive domesticity, their chores coordinating like a pas de deux framed through the curtainless window: King-Lu chops wood while Cookie beats clean a shabby sheepskin and plucks sprigs of wildflowers to prettify the spartan space. The contrast between King-Lu’s grand ambitions to make his mark on the land’s unblemished canvas and Cookie’s simple gratification in maintaining their makeshift household draws laughter. Men like Cookie—too passive and diffident, too compassionate and careful—are not set up to succeed.

Kelly Reichardt, First Cow 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 121 minutes. King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro).

Outcasts pepper the filmography of Reichardt, whose seven features are strewn with surly wives and luckless drifters, crushed fantasists and uncertain women—characters sapped by their harsh, barren environs. All but one of her movies—her first, River of Grass (1994), which swelters in the paved-over paradise of her native Florida—are set westward, a region sketched in crepuscular emeralds and sunless slates by, most often and most recently, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.

Reichardt has a fondness for quest narratives: While her films are not reducible to incident, her figures often home in on the steady completion of a solitary task (searching for Lucy in Wendy and Lucy, tending to the horses in Certain Women). One day, Cookie sights a grazing heifer—the eponymous first cow, brought in on a raft by Chief Factor (Toby Jones), to supply cream for his tea—and pines offhandedly for biscuits. Cut to their first of many illicit nocturnal forays into the pasture, where King-Lu keeps watch while Cookie pilfers the milk. Test batches are refined when King-Lu intuits they should make something sweeter; the resulting “oily cakes,” served cold then piping-hot, undressed then slathered in honey and dusted with cinnamon, are a hit in the outpost’s muddy public square, where they draw the attention of Factor himself.

Undergirding the film is a subterranean struggle to recapture minor intimacies amid the creeping encroachment of capital. Commissioned by Chief Factor to whip up a clafouti, a French dessert—for no more noble purpose than to abash a haughty captain, visiting from Europe and contemptuous of the untamed territory—Cookie whips up a pastry while King-Lu muses over how much money they should charge for it: “Twenty? Twenty-five?” Cookie unheedingly looks at the stars, then unmarred by electric light. There is a bitter irony in how these humble cakes conjure home for those Europeans who left to seize and scar this scrap of land in the so-called New World. Chief Factor sighs as he “tastes London” in them. Later, he boasts to the captain about the cream his cow produces. Also in play is the creature’s illustrious pedigree; her good Brittany breeding makes her more valued, in the eyes of these motley homesteaders, than the non-Western King-Lu.

Such insights are, as ever, a byproduct of Reichardt’s approach. Shots amble away from our central characters as if caught in some strange undertow, watching a dog proudly standing at a boat’s prow, or the sable sky pocked by stars, or an Indigenous girl lugging a bucket of sloshing milk. Sometimes these diversions carry a political cast, as when Chief Factor’s Chinook servant somberly tidies a darkened house at dawn, or when Factor’s American Indian wife (Lily Gladstone, the diamond in the rough of Reichardt’s Certain Women), who seems more a ready translator than an inamorata, relaxes with relief to be alone with another native woman, a scene held for an unusually long time, as if the camera itself wanted to grant these women a moment of space and autonomy otherwise denied to them. 

Recently, I was reminded by the writer Thora Siemsen that cows, which chew cud over hours, belong to a category of mammals called ruminants, their leisurely digestion sharing a linguistic root with the word ruminate, to chew things over in one’s mind. In First Cow, Reichardt has crafted a ruminant cinema, in all its dual meaning, by slackening to a bovine pace. Reichardt has said that she and her crew “have to move in slow motion and give over to the animal.” Our human world hastens us to an unnatural speed, but buried beneath the loam is the skeleton of another possibility.

First Cow opens in the US on March 6.