Kelly Reichardt’s Anti-Capitalist Vision of Frontier America

Kelly Reichardt’s Anti-Capitalist Vision of Frontier America

A History of the Ordinary

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.


In the opening moments of First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, the earth speaks a secret: On a riverside walk in the winter sun, a young woman and her dog uncover two skeletons lying side by side, corralled into a shallow grave by soil and time. Their discovery is a brief framing device. We soon leap back to 1820s Oregon, when these bones were last animate—but the scene mounts a critical view. History, it offers, is made of these terrestrial secrets, stilled beneath grand monuments and narratives of assured significance.

Across Reichardt’s work, storytelling seems to begin with this kind of quiet retrieval, even as her films skirt familiar genres like westerns and thrillers, always hollowed of the usual climactic beats. By stretching a moment here and eliding denouement there, her films play with narrative form to challenge the lofty myths of nation making, which are really just old stories recycled to hawk false hopes. Those staples of Americana—the frontier, the road, the picket-fence reward—turn myth into expectation, make life into a cluster of norms. In First Cow, we return to the prelapsarian woods where these (settlers’) myths were being made, but Reichardt tests these forces of aggrandizement with a history of the ordinary.

Drawn from Jonathan Raymond’s sprawling debut novel, The Half-Life, First Cow, takes place in the borderlands of early capitalist America. The only roads in this part of Oregon are the mud tracks that score forest-side settlements. Big cities have claimed the East Coast, and San Francisco gleams in the West, but on this canopied trail there’s one last frontier, ripe for new enterprise. We follow one Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), an aptly nicknamed cook from Maryland who has been tasked with feeding a surly group of fur trappers. While foraging for mushrooms one night, he chances on King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant hiding from vengeful Russians, naked beneath ferns and moonlight. Cookie feeds and clothes the stranger, who soon disappears; when providence throws them together again, they stay bound by mutual respect and a sense of opportunity. With stolen milk from the region’s first dairy cow, owned by the town’s wealthiest resident, a British trader, the two start a lucrative baking business selling nostalgia-laden oily cakes (and one truly Proustian clafouti) to white men far from home.

The settlement is the ground zero fantasy of America, a place teeming with the sheer breadth of human provenance. After the forest quiet, “civilization” is all cacophony: stilted melodies from an amateur fiddler and syncopated thwacks from someone chopping wood, fires crackling in the wind and footfall on wet mud. Accents ricochet in the town tavern—Scottish, Russian, Irish. You can even catch another Chinese man at the market, decked in a Qing dynasty robe and red-tasseled guanmao. The territory’s verdure is as novel to these immigrants as their strange voices are to this venerable land. It’s a contrast held throughout the film, which treats Native presence—here, the riverside Chinook tribe—as a constant visual fact, even though Reichardt refuses to subtitle any spoken Indigenous language, just as she did in her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff. It’s a perfect power inversion. After all, knowledge is about access, and these moments of respectful opacity say, “Not for you.” In town or by the water, we see Chinook women in woven hats sharpening knives and axes with whetstones, engaged in their traditions of doing and making, overlooked by avaricious settlers who would claim “virgin” territory.

Reichardt instills that proprietary tension in our central duo. King-Lu rhapsodizes about the land’s “freshness” as he walks Cookie to his house for the first time, crossing flimsy shacks and dying fires on the town’s periphery. To Cookie, though, this place seems old, but King-Lu insists, “History isn’t here yet. We got here early this time” And then a telling line that parrots the victor’s ethos from an underdog’s view, “Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.” When they reach King-Lu’s wooden shack, he prepares a toast. “Here’s to…something,” he says, laughing off the vagueness with an entrepreneur’s optimism. That something is so capacious, it teases a whole off-screen world. Over halfway into the film, after they’ve been living together for some time, sold hundreds of cakes, and “banked” their earnings in a tree hollow, King-Lu reminds his friend, “We haven’t even begun.”

Their fortunes, as ever, lie farther down the winding road—away from the settlement and perhaps south to California. It’s an idea that Reichardt keeps returning to in her filmmaking. The road is the allegory that sustains a pioneering dream of self-making. It glows with a Bonnie and Clyde thrill for the mother of two in River of Grass (1994), who flees domestic ennui for an on-the-lam fantasy that loops back into tedium. In Wendy and Lucy (2008), it promises another life as much as it denies the protagonist and her broken car any chance of getting there. Even in First Cow, set in a sliver of America yet untouched by rolling asphalt, all bets are still hedged on a passage that would barrel two seekers to a prosperous elsewhere. Reichardt offers this dream to stage the slow revelation that the open road is a capitalist trick of deferral: Labor away with one eye on the scintillating future, and the present becomes bearable.

As in her other films, First Cow shirks the closure of arrival for “the small ‘getting-to,’” as she put it in a Vox interview. If her films feel slow, it’s because they’re best described by gerunds—stories about getting to, doing, making—locked to an abiding present, whereas others would quicken to the next act. That she prefers to work from short stories is unsurprising, since her main narrative mode is a kind of temporal elaboration. Her script contributions are mostly adjustments of pacing to match the duration of her characters’ labor. It takes time to do work, to get somewhere, more time than most films would spare. This itinerant cadence might be the outcome of Reichardt’s early life (she dropped out after 11th grade and spent the next few years working odd jobs and couch surfing), but her films are self-effacing in a way that resists the journalistic impulse toward biography as cipher. There’s a clue in a comment she once made about documentaries, telling IndieWire , “When I put on a documentary and the documentary filmmaker starts making himself part of the movie, I’m out. Right away.”

Save for the Florida-set River of Grass and a stint in Montana for Certain Women (2016), Reichardt has seeded some 200 years of chronicles in the varied trails of her beloved Oregon. The state’s eastern side looms as a stretch of high desert in the 1845-set Meek’s Cutoff, and its littoral south shrouds quiet panic in Night Moves (2013), which sees three radical environmentalists take action in the roiling present. It’s tempting, then, to talk about Oregon as one of Reichardt’s recurring characters, but the landscape is as much cowriter as versatile costar. Preproduction begins with her scouting locations for weeks or months, often alone, pulling out the lived time that only a landscape can teach and making that the bedrock of her stories. She knows that place and its contingencies author the richest scenes, plot possibilities offered by the shady reprieve of a mesa at high noon or by the windy parking lot of a roadside diner at midnight.

Like the films of her neorealist forebears, Reichardt’s compel that hackneyed descriptor “ambiguous,” though ambiguity is just another way of withholding. Some of her characters are gripped by a loneliness that makes them taciturn; others burst from the edges of neglect in a clamorous bid to be noticed. It’s a feeling best expressed by the disappointed narrator in River of Grass , when her highway fantasy deflates toward the end. “I wasn’t on the lam, after all. I wasn’t lying low, ducking cops, and if I was, no one cared,” she says. “If we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything.” Civic life is built on forms of recognition, and even criminality can place you in someone’s view.

Reichardt’s work is defined by this interest in peripheral figures and their stories but never with a need to represent their experiences as remarkable; she told IndieWire that she finds suspect the “dishonest overstimulation” of some films. The lovelorn rancher she follows in Certain Women, she said in a Village Voice interview, is drawn to “the steady beauty of a chore.” First Cow finds a similar beauty in routine, tying scenes of Cookie and King-Lu’s household chores to wandering monologues of their various aspirations. Early into their cohabitation, Reichardt sets this easy rhythm as King-Lu sounds out a get-rich-quick scheme while Cookie plucks blueberries from a bush. Soon we see the duo shelling nuts and slicing vegetables at home, dreaming aloud about an almond farm or a small hotel or even a bakery with wild huckleberry pies. Their everyday conversations pool their ranging hopes, and when we hear them spoken as the two sit by the river, weaving a mat or darning a sock in view of red cedars and dappled water, even mundane toil seems its own kind of idyll. At least when there’s still chance of a grand payoff.

In the character of Cookie, Reichardt stores a goodness so beaming and innate, it’s almost otherworldly. He stops in the forest to help a tiny salamander stuck on its back, says hello to the big brown dairy cow and apologizes for the mate and calf she lost on the crossing, and thinks nothing of helping King-Lu when they first meet. In an interview in Slant for Certain Women, Reichardt relayed the question that animates all her work, though it reads as a most precise summary of First Cow : “Do you want to live in an each man for himself world or a world where you can bump into a stranger and give the benefit of the doubt to someone you don’t know?” Cookie and King-Lu’s friendship seems so rare, it spins the story into something like a fable, one that teaches kindness as the only exceptionalism worth celebrating. In Reichardt’s histories of the small and ordinary, the value of care becomes easier to see.

There’s a scene toward the end of the film that limns another unusual relationship and stunned me with its freshness—a tiny moment but enough for me to register, “I have never seen this before.” King-Lu, now on the run, meets a Chinook man on the embankment and needs to travel downstream in his canoe. Desperately, King-Lu tries a few lines in Chinook Wawa before they yield to the basic language of barter: a few buttons from King-Lu’s coat for the passage. Of course, the film suggests, there is a whole world of frontier encounters that rarely make their way on-screen for their lack of centering whiteness.

What’s quietly disruptive is also the frame itself. In Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt worked with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to clip the arid vista of the desert by shooting in the tighter confines of 4:3 aspect ratio. The landscape becomes less boundless horizon and more site of sloping accrual, with characters dotting sparse and slanted planes. Caught in the same dimensions, First Cow both magnifies and encloses, as though its smallness is the condition for observing the land’s plenitude, where ferns cloak the wooded terrain and lichen-shagged branches lie low on the forest floor. Early on, with scant shelter outside the settlement, an open tent flap bounds two figures in the leafy glade like a doorway. Later, when Cookie and King-Lu take up in their wooden shack, a paneless window and gaps between slats make the house itself a frame for their hopeful new days. The author Annie Dillard wrote in an essay called “Seeing,” “I would like to know grasses and sedges—and care. Then, my least journey into the world would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.” I get the sense that Reichardt is after something similar—attention as a form of generosity. Like all the best art, First Cow makes me feel as if I’m relearning how to do something I’ve done my whole life: how to look and, in fresh wonder, how to care.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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