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'First Cow' and the gentle frontier film

In a rugged genre, Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ is uniquely delicate in both word and action

Orion Lee and (right) John Magaro in 'First Cow'
Orion Lee and (right) John Magaro in 'First Cow'

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As his new friend washes clothes in the stream, King-Lu (Orion Lee) sits on a mat by the bank and philosophises. “It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle,” he says. “You need capital, or you need some kind of miracle.” “You need leverage,” his friend says, off-screen. “Or a crime,” King-Lu mutters.

If you read this exchange without having seen Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019), you might wonder why a Chinese film is speaking the language of American entrepreneurship. In fact, King-Lu, though from China, is the spirit of early America personified. His companion, Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), is a cook, so everyone calls him “Cookie”. The year is 1820. They are in rural Oregon, seemingly virgin territory, though King-Lu already has dreams of moving elsewhere and starting a farm, or a hotel. Cookie, a slower intelligence, is happy to be swept along in his partner’s ever-changing plans.

Also read: ‘Deadwood: The Movie’: Once upon a time in America

One of the central themes in American films is the endless investigation, mythologising and reappraisal of the country’s origins. This is the basis of the Western, but also of the frontier film—a more amorphous genre. It includes Westerns like The Big Trail and Wagon Master but also anti-Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the TV series Deadwood, and films as different as North To Alaska, Easy Rider and Reichardt’s own Meek’s Cutoff. Most frontier films are about the difficulties of pioneer life, whether it’s an injured Daniel Plainview dragging himself along the ground in There Will Be Blood or Charlie Chaplin’s starving roommate imagining him as a giant chicken in The Gold Rush. This is where Reichardt’s film breaks with the genre.

First Cow is almost alone in being a gentle frontier narrative. In a rugged genre, this is a disarmingly soft film. Despite the starkness of the setting—King-Lu’s hut has no floor, Cookie’s shoes have holes—there is a delicacy to the proceedings that trains a different sort of gaze on frontier life. The crime that King-Lu mentions by the river comes to pass, yet is laughably benign. A British landowner, Chief Factor, has brought a cow: the first one in the territory. Cookie and King-Lu conspire to milk the animal at night so they can make “oily cakes”, which are a huge success with the local population. Among those impressed is Chief Factor himself, who says in wonderment after his first bite: “I taste London in this cake.”

The rough action that might have been front and centre in, say, Deadwood is pushed to the background. When a man in a bar is goaded into a fight, he first hands over a baby in a basket to Cookie, telling him to take care of it. As the men slug it out off-screen, Cookie makes cooing sounds, while King-Lu sits unperturbed at his table. When the two antagonists of the piece meet, they start by discussing whippings but soon move on to Parisian fashions. Even the language has a lilt to it. Chief Factor asks Cookie to make a clafoutis, a word that rolls off Jones’ tongue so perfectly (“kla-foo-tea”) that Reichardt has him say it four times in a scene.

Magaro has a voice that seems to strain to come out, making even simple pronouncements sound like a plea. When he speaks to the cow while milking, he’s like a halting teenager trying to sweet-talk a date (“What a good, sweet girl you are”). With his go-getter spirit and talk of capital and competing at scale, King-Lu is closer to the archetype of an American pioneer, but Lee’s polished tones offer a new kind of cinematic presentation of the Chinese in early America, usually relegated to the periphery of stories as manual labour or opium addicts.

Also read: 'News of the World' review: Exit west

Everything about the film seems to invite the viewer to lean forward and look closely. From the mud and the foliage emerge stunning details: a raven perched on a man’s shoulder, a man with huge hands cradling a tiny sparrow, another in a waistcoat, trousers and a hat reading a yellowed newspaper. One lateral tracking shot shows a line of trappers and locals in line for Cookie’s oily cakes. William Tyler’s score is spare, mostly accompanied picked guitar or toy piano. The ambient sound is wonderful too: the scraping of cinnamon, the sharpening of a knife against a stone, the rustle of an earthen floor being swept.

First Cow ultimately isn’t free of the tragic pull of the frontier film, which runs from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Two-Lane Blacktop to There Will Be Blood, characters blinded by ambition, going crazy or dying alone. But even when matters deteriorate for King-Lu and Cookie, the abiding feeling is that of fraternity. The film starts with a line from a poem by William Blake: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship". The frontier film has always been about the gold, the land, the oil, the adventure. Reichardt might be the first to suggest that it’s the people you share the spoils with that make the journey worthwhile.

First Cow will stream on MUBI from 9 July.

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