First Cow: Contemporary Minimalism

Since the release of her debut feature film River of Grass in 1994, American film director/screenwriter/editor Kelly Reichardt has epitomised the contemporary minimalist film movement. With several of her works reflecting her own struggles as an independent filmmaker, her carefully restrained stories navigate tales of outsiders and those existing on the periphery of society and seeking their place in the world. From Old Joy (2006) to Meek’s Cutoff (2010) via Wendy and Lucy (2008), Reichardt’s body of work is particularly preoccupied with the Pacific Northwest, a landscape she revisits once again in her latest film, First Cow.

Set in 1820s Oregon and following a community of fur-trappers, First Cow is a western of sorts, though Reichardt removes much of hyper-masculinity, bravado and common signifiers of the genre. Here, we follow the story of kind-hearted chef Otis “Cookie” Figowtiz (John Magaro), who stumbles upon a Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), a fugitive accused of killing a Russian man. The two outsiders quickly become companions and embark on a simple business scheme in the hope of earning enough money to pursue their respective dreams: King Lu wishes to own a farm and Cookie wants to run his own bakery. The duo steal the milk from the Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) cow at night, using it to make batches of rich, sweet biscuits that become instantly popular at the outpost. Their success is short-lived, as while their entrepreneurial actions barely feel like a crime, the cow and her milk are explicitly the property of the Chief Factor. The frontier may be the land of opportunity, but not for everyone.

First Cow reunites Reichardt with writer Jonathan Raymond for their fifth collaboration. Loosely based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life, Reichardt’s film is economically told, produced for approximately $2 million, it is modest while quietly heartbreaking and intimate. This intimacy is matched by the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio; there are no wide-angle vistas here, and the frame highlights the small world we share with Cookie and King-Lu. First Cow revisits familiar themes for Reichardt: issues of social class and American expansion while commenting upon the birth of modern U.S. But the film is also a delicate rumination on male friendships and dashed hopes, particularly the often futile pursuit of the American Dream.

First Cow is screening at Showroom Cinema from Friday 28 May. Tickets are on sale now.

This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 27 May 2021.


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