Between Yourself and This Bygone Place

Between Yourself and This Bygone Place

Between Yourself and This Bygone Place

On Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, and other recent films.


You might have to go back to Robert Browning to find another artist as steeped in historical reverie as Kelly Reichardt. Differences noted, of course: Browning dreamed himself into the minds of famous painters, princes of the church, and bloodstained noblemen, whereas Reichardt’s protagonists, when she finds them in the past, are the sort of people who may leave behind not even a name. They live and die humbly, and in a setting directly antecedent to hers—the Pacific Northwest, where she works—rather than in the warmth and color of a foreign land like Browning’s Italy.

Having little of the escapism of Browning’s poems, Reichardt’s historical films also forgo much of the robust action and probing psychology that put the drama into his dramatic monologues. She makes predominantly quiet, smoothly flowing pictures for audiences of a contemplative bent. Not that her new film, First Cow, lacks incident. At the beginning, in the present, two skeletons are sniffed out of a shallow grave by an inquisitive dog, and from then on, the backward-looking narrative is a construction of disastrously cascading dominoes: threats of murder, desperate flights, larceny, fraud, brain-shaking injury, and for good measure, some punitive home smashing. So dire is Reichardt’s vision of 1820s Oregon that child abandonment comes and goes as a passing curiosity.

And yet all this violence and suspense seems to happen at a slight remove, distanced from you not by anything as corny as a sepia tint but by the manifest action of Reichardt’s intelligence. When those skeletons are dug up in the present-day prologue, clawed out of the ground with bare hands by the foraging dog owner (Alia Shawkat, in a cameo role), she turns her face up and smiles with an expression entirely at odds with a discovery of bones. Why? My guess is that she’s a stand-in for Reichardt and is pleased to have a mystery to think about. The rest of First Cow might be interpreted as this young woman’s fantasy—or Reichardt’s—about how two men came to be buried side by side near the banks of the lower Columbia.

As in many good fantasies, unstated implications abound. They seem to hover just outside the old-fashioned 4:3 frame that Reichardt has chosen, denying you the panoramic vistas, and presumption of clarity, that you can get in a wide-screen western. As the story begins, you might intuit how the prologue’s wanderer could imagine a long-ago version of herself as Cookie (John Magaro), a soft-eyed, thick-bearded man wrapped against the cold in layers of old cloth—rags, really—topped by a large, limp fungus of brown felt. He, too, is a forager, gathering mushrooms to feed a party of beaver trappers, and if he isn’t as feminine as the person who will find his bones two centuries later, he nevertheless figures as a domestic appendage to the men he’s serving and who address him, at best, with dismissive brutality.

It’s past dark, and Cookie is hurrying to scrape together a meal from the forest floor, when he stumbles upon someone who will become his friend and business partner—and perhaps his lover, too, if it seems suggestive that the man is found naked. This is King-Lu (Orion Lee), another of the region’s beaver trappers, who by his account fell afoul of some Russians, killed one, and had to abandon his clothes while running for his life. Cookie covertly shelters the stranger for the night in his own tent before aiding the man’s getaway. It won’t be long before King-Lu turns up again, this time in the ramshackle trading settlement where the rest of the story plays out.

Deeper-voiced than Cookie, trimmer and more self-assured, King-Lu is also better traveled. He tells his rediscovered friend and new cottage-mate that the Oregon Territory is fresh in a way he’s never seen before. “History hasn’t gotten here yet,” he says as the two stride through the woods. “Maybe this time we can be ready for it.” The old, old story, told again as if from the beginning: Americans think they see the forest primeval, when what they’re looking at is their own naivete. Not innocence. King-Lu has killed, and with his encouragement, Cookie is about to steal, lie, and join in accumulating capital too quickly for their good. But bound in friendship or perhaps love, the men temporarily let themselves believe this land of abundance might provide enough for them, too.

All they have to do is siphon off a little generosity from the first cow in the territory.

Photographed by Christopher Blauvelt in the muted greens and muddy browns of perpetually overcast woods—and in a recurring nocturnal murk that at times seems illuminated only by one bovine eye—First Cow has a look of not just age but also estrangement. In this imagined world of sparse, scraggly grass and thick fern beds, gap-planked cabins and a handmade checkerboard, oil bubbling in an old cast iron pan and a neocountry guitar reverbing on the soundtrack, everything is pushed just beyond the norm. Characters dress more oddly, behave more bizarrely, and at times are shaped more awkwardly than in your received images of the Old West, with the native people both more and less habituated to the mixed lot of settlers than you might expect. In this way, too, Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond, her frequent collaborator, keep the action at a slight emotional remove. You’re always aware of the rift between yourself and this bygone, fabricated place.

And yet the central figures may feel closer to you than do Browning’s exotics. In a way that’s peculiar to the taste of our moment—or the taste of the art house fraction of us, at any rate—Cookie and King-Lu flatter the audience. They love each other as we think men should. They hold out against a society of which we don’t approve. Maybe that’s why, despite the tension of our knowing where these characters will end, the suspense in First Cow is frictionless. This world may seem alien, but the filmmakers’ attitude toward it is modern and makes the doom go down easily.

I’ve been happier with Reichardt when she has put me on the side of protagonists who weren’t so comforting, as she did, for example, in Wendy and Lucy. That said, when Reichardt left King-Lu and Cookie behind at the end, sometime before the worst would happen, her composure and discretion stole my breath. A view of these friends in repose, a pause that passes like a sigh, and imagination—hers, ours, Alia Shawkat’s—was left to fill in the rest. It wouldn’t be strange, at this blackout, if you, too, turned up your face and smiled.

I’ve seen my share of exuberant movie violence, but there’s a trick with an umbrella in Diao Yinan’s cops-and-gangsters thriller The Wild Goose Lake that had me fumbling to clutch my stomach and skull at the same time—the stomach with nausea, the skull in astonishment. There’s also a new twist on an old ambush technique, executed with (let’s say) surgical speed, and for a lighter touch, an amusement arcade featuring a live severed head that sings. Yinan creates all this novelty and excitement for a movie that during the other half of its running time lets the ogling camera make passes at erotically charged actors, as they enjoy languorous, nocturnal cigarette breaks amid picturesque dilapidation.

Outside a train station on the margins of Wuhan, Zhou Zhenong and Liu Aiai soak in the rainy atmosphere and size each other up. He (played by brooding heartthrob Hu Ge) is a midlevel gangster who ordinarily would be out stealing motor scooters at this time of night but is now on the lam after shooting at a murderous rival and killing a cop instead. She (played by the slim, solemn, balletically erect Gwei Lun Mei) has come to this rendezvous in place of Zhou’s wife and so may be assumed to be a betrayer, an ally, a new love interest, a fellow victim of circumstance, or more likely, all of the above. The police have offered a very large cash reward for Zhou, so Liu might be making risky calculations. But then, so is Zhou, in the tradition of movie criminals who suffer nobly on their way to the fade-out.

Flamboyantly stylish but also obsessed with exploring the marginal geographies that its cops call “uncontrolled,” swooningly romantic but too dirty-minded and too generous to condemn Liu to the femme’s usual fate, The Wild Goose Lake satisfies all your genre needs and at the same time shatters them. The shards are pretty—and they’re very sharp.

To say that Ken Loach and his writing partner Paul Laverty have made another work of social realism is like saying the next Fast and Furious will have car chases. The only question is which problem of the English working class Loach and Laverty have dramatized this time. In Sorry We Missed You, the answer is the gig economy—or, to quote an elderly character who still remembers the years of standing up to Thatcher, “What happened to the eight-hour day?”

There is no longer any limit to the hours worked or the debts incurred by Ricky and Abbie (Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood), a couple struggling to raise their children decently somewhere in Tyne and Wear. Abbie is on call from 7:30 in the morning to 9:00 at night as a home health care aide, paid by the visit and uncompensated for her travel time and expense. Ricky, no longer able to find jobs in construction, has unwisely leased a van and signed up to drive for a company called PDF (for Parcels Delivered Fast). By law, he’s an independent contractor. In reality, he’s more like a rat in a maze, except that rats retain the option to stop running and say, “Screw the cheese.”

I’m tempted to call Sorry We Missed You as old-fashioned as a chipped-flint hand ax, as a Child ballad, as Bernie Sanders’s wardrobe. That isn’t necessarily bad. It is dependable like the first, atavistically affecting like the second, and like the third comes wrapped around a powerfully held set of principles. It’s also imagistically coherent in a way that strenuously up-to-date movies, with their disdain for mere carpentry, sometimes don’t bother to attempt.

Loach develops the action through two motifs. One is the handheld digital device, both the parcel scanner that controls Ricky’s life on the job and the smartphone that everyone has to carry. Ricky and Abbie, always at work, flailingly resort to parenting by voice mail. Their teenage son lives on social media in a way that Ricky can’t accept. The frequent presence of phones in the back of Ricky’s van—and their high cost—kicks the plot into crisis.

Side by side with this high-tech motif comes imagery of bodily waste. Abbie spends the days and nights cleaning up incontinent old people. Their young daughter, affected by the stress at home, has reverted to wetting the bed. Ricky, lacking time in his grueling schedule to find public restrooms, unwillingly adopts the standard industry practice of relieving himself in a plastic bottle and ends up smelling like Abbie’s clients.

Piss, shit, and our immaculate information economy: Sorry We Missed You delivers them in a single package. If economy and appropriateness of means are marks of elegance, then this picture has the kind of elegance that does not go out of style. The performances, as always with Loach, are as solid as the bricks along Ricky and Abbie’s road. The filmmakers’ sympathies are warm and wide. They just don’t extend to those supposedly immaterial people who must be out there somewhere, sucking money through Ricky’s scanner.

Reasons you might allow someone to drag you to see the remake of The Invisible Man: Elisabeth Moss, staring into the camera as if she’s trying to push her retinal rods and cones through her corneas. Elisabeth Moss, twisting her mouth into a Möbius strip. Elisabeth Moss, committing as only she does to desperate anger, meanwhile giving an inappropriate little laugh in midsentence. Elisabeth Moss, pretending to fight for her life against the titular villain, when you can see she’s really just supine on the floor, waggling her arms and legs like a kitten.

In case that’s not enough, this new Invisible Man, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, puts Moss through many up-to-date horrors of middle-class life. She deals with hacked e-mail, a blown job interview, one of those intimidating concrete-trough washbasins you find in some chichi restaurants, and a conversation with a rich young self-approving lawyer. And the title character? He’s the worst nightmare of all: an abusive husband turned impossible-to-catch stalker.

In the source novel, which H.G. Wells subtitled A Grotesque Romance, the protagonist was a kind of 1890s technocrat: ambitious, greedy, resolutely private, and eager to gain a “thousand advantages” over “common people” by means of his scientific work. The irony: By separating himself from humanity, he became ridiculous and entirely vulnerable. Maybe that idea would still work for a contemporary version of the tale—better, perhaps, than Whannell’s revised theme. As deployed in this movie, invisibility is an inapt metaphor for the harms suffered by women in a willfully obtuse male-dominated society. Everybody here fully believes the heroine was abused. And though scientific fantasy does ramp up the stakes, you don’t really need it for a scary woman-being-stalked movie. What you could use, though, is grotesquerie, humor, visual wit, and a preference for atmosphere and suspense over splatterfest action. You know, everything James Whale gave the 1933 version.

I wonder, by the way, why a movie about something you can’t see needs to blow up its void to Imax scale. Yet here is today’s supermega Invisible Man, the film that asks, “If less is more, then should nil be enormous?”

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