Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 04, 2019 3:24 am 
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A particularly intense study in Reichardt's taut minimalism

Set in 1820, 25 years before the time of the director's Meeks Cutoff, First Cow, about what would become Oregon and beavers and men on the frontier, is a dreamy, cramped, primitive, sad scene of hostile people scrambling... slowly... to survive. Two men cling to each other, the temporary trappers' cook Cookie Figowitz (John Megaro) to King Lu (Orion Lee), a well-traveled Chinese man fluent in English Cookie finds naked fleeing angry Russians.

He helps him and they part, but meet again later, which leads to their sharing a tiny cabin. Together they quietly enter into a business venture to sell tasty buttermilk biscuits laced with honey to the locals in the market. But this tasty, lucrative trade, a hot success in this wild uncivilized place where home cooking is so missed, depends on a supply of milk poached at night from the newly-arrived sole cow in the region, which belongs to the British trapping firm overseer known as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). This theft is a dangerous game that poses a looming threat over the rest of the tale. The partnership and cohabitation, intensified by the risky venture that makes it feel delicate and doomed, makes us ponder the film's epigraph from William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. Is it even more, a desperate, lonely love?

The scene is full of vague but intense class strictures: the shyness of Cookie, his secondary status to the macho trappers; the outlier Chinese man he feels safe with, the pompous Chief Factor, the local grandee.

One is continually struck with a sense of things missing, the intentional minimalism of Reichardt's style, The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, eschewing wide horizons, the many scenes in such low light you can barely make things out. The cakes Cookie bakes, using ingredients King Lu assembles, such a tiny thing to make their fortune, in small batches. This is Slow Food cinema too, a thing not for everyone, but a delight to the devotee.

I kept thinking of Jarmusch's Dead Man, for some reason: it must be set much later, but it evokes raw frontier primitivism too. . . differently, though, with lots of snappy dialogue, humor, and a richer narrative. Yet in the end First Cow wins out in this comparison in certain important categories: sincerity, genuine pathos. I also thought of Young Adult novels. Perhaps too tilted toward the tragic, but this has that quality of showing boys what the frontier life was like, how a man can cook, that it's wrong to steal.

It is in fact difficult to imagine the ideal audience for Kelly Reichardt, which may change from film to film. I respected the subtlety of her debut Old Joy, but seem to have most enjoyed her most conventional film, the 2014 almost-thriller about terrorists, Night Moves. Actually, she can appeal to any fan of uniquely crafted independent films. It's like enjoying being smothered, or at least that's the feeling this time. This is a particularly intense, intimate version of her style, though you know where it is going, and toward the end it moves toward conventional suspense - nicely ending in the air, with an unmistakable but hopefully not too neat visual rhyme with the opening.

First Cow is again freely adapted with the writer Jonathan (or Jon) Raymond, her collaborator for most of her features, this time from the first work of his she read and his debut, The Half-Life. But that book is composed of two stories 150 years apart, and this is just the earlier one, plus a contemporary opening of the finding of two old skeletons shallowly buried side by side, a foreshadowing. Besides, in the book the joint venture is extracting castoreum, a beaver musk highly prized in China. I have not read the book, but I think I would still prefer the simpler version of this film. The minimalism strains the patience at times, but through it Reichardt creates a mood here that haunts and lingers.

First Cow, 121 mins., debuted Aug. 30, 2019 at Telluride, showing also at the New York Film Festival, where Reichardt, Megaro, and Lee were present at Lincoln Center Oct. 3 for a Q&A (watch it HERE) with festival programming director Dennis Lim); it comes to US theaters, distributed by A24, Mar. 6, 2020. Metascore went from 76% at the time of this review to 89% since its US theatrical release.


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