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The Current Debate: “First Cow” and the American Dream

Kelly Reichardt’s western is a memorable fable about friendship, capitalism, and a nation’s founding myth.
Leonardo Goi
First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s latest foray into the northwest past, is a period piece set in 1820s Oregon Territory, where a couple of outcasts (John Magaro’s Cookie and Orion Lee’s King-Lu) embark on a picaresque financial venture involving a cow, stolen milk, and delicious pastries. Co-written with Jonathan Raymond and based on his novel The Half Life, it’s a zero-sum struggle between haves and have-nots that harkens back to what A.A. Dowd at the A.V. Club sees as “a national creation myth”—a film that’s concerned with tracing “the roots of our ballyhooed entrepreneurial spirit, and the harsh reality of how it often collides with established wealth.” Such roots, Karen Han contends at Polygon, draw from the American Dream itself, of which Reichardt’s film offers a small-scale rendition:
The conversations the two men have about what they’re doing — the balance between risk and reward, and how long they’ll have a monopoly — are applicable throughout history. Every enterprise must deal with the inescapable reach of capitalism and larger structures of power, as well as, on a less cynical note, the simple human desire for more than just the bare necessities.
But if the myth First Cow speaks to—and the critique of capitalism it mounts—are so universal in scope, what about its heroes, Cookie and King-Lu? Does Reichardt reduce them to two inert and only vaguely sketched pawns within a corrupt system that leaves them no chances of success? 
It bears noting that First Cow telegraphs its ending from the very first scene, where a woman in present-day Oregon unearths two skeletons lying side by side in the woods, whereupon the film thumbs back to the early 19th century, and to the start of Cookie and King-Lu’s friendship. At Slant, Keith Uhlich suggests that—in a film he sees as “one of the director’s shakier efforts”—the anticipated tragic finale may be responsible for leaving the two pals and business partners as “half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings”: 
[…] Reichardt sees [Cookie] and King-Lu, first and foremost, as the bag of bones they will become (abusers and victims both of capitalist injustice), rather than the men they are in each given moment. Their all-too-apparent endpoint supersedes their tragically flawed existence, which has the adverse effect of diminishing their humanity, reducing them to paper-thin symbols. This wreaks havoc with a finale that grasps for a profound elementalism akin to one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lushly ardent fantasias, but instead comes off with the contrived ambiguity and labored didacticism of lesser John Sayles. 
At The New Yorker, Richard Brody echoes similar doubts, namely, whether Reichardt’s overarching critique of capitalism may overleap specifics, to the detriment of her doomed heroes:
“First Cow” is a movie divided against itself. Reichardt’s keen and spare sensibility simultaneously stokes suspense while shying away from it, leans toward perception while rushing toward judgment. Her abstemious repertory of images and tightly focussed drama suggest that she took greater pleasure in conveying her premise than in the also vital cinematic pleasure discovering her characters. The movie’s proportions and contours give rise to yet another familiar, altogether too common, failing of movies of overt political import: impersonality. The spare quasi-objectivity of the images, which appear to declare facts rather than states of mind, reflect a repudiation of the heterogenous, a lack of interest in aspects of character and behavior that don’t line up in the same direction or lead to the predetermined outcome. 
Still, I find it difficult to square the sense of impersonality Brody laments with the multilayered universe Reichardt ushers us into. Nor am I entirely convinced that Cookie and King-Lu are the half-formed avatars Uhlich describes them as. In fact, as K. Austin Collins notes at Vanity Fair, the beauty and power of Reichardt’s cinema usually resides in the simple everyday moments and details her films are so rich with—and in First Cow, even the tiniest among those details accrues the magnitude of a character-defining gesture:
Reichardt’s emphasis on specific slits of character—the holes in Cookie’s boots, the sensual waves of his honey dipper as he lovingly garnishes the oily cakes that become his trade—has the effect that untouchable horizons and broad vistas do in other Westerns. These details are expansive: through them, the worlds of the films’ characters broaden. At the same time, Reichardt’s films often whittle her characters’ lives down to spirit-shaking, material choices, decisions that at times literally set the course for the rest of her characters’ lives.
More broadly, for all its concerns with capitalism and systemic corruption, the film’s overarching leitmotif lies in the need for human connection. And this accounts perhaps for the peculiar blend of optimism Time’s Stephanie Zacharek perceives in First Cow’s fabric:
[First Cow] is a reminder that all Americans have today was stolen, not borrowed, from those who lived on this land long before white people knew it existed: The ugly behavior of those forebears is the foundation of prosperity today. And yet, even as the opportunistic creatures we are, humans can’t help striving for kindness and connection. That’s the optimism at the heart of First Cow, a picture that’s both tranquil and dazzling, two qualities that should be at odds with one another yet somehow bloom in tandem under Reichardt’s gentle touch.
Whether or not the more tranquil and gentle register will entrance you will depend on your receptivity to that “meditative crawl,” to borrow again from A.A. Dowd at the A.V. Club, Reichardt’s films tend to set in motion. Her pared-down narratives and bare-bones plots may be something of an acquired taste—in the words of San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle:
Reichardt has many gifts as a filmmaker — real gifts, rare gifts — but keeping an audience fully awake for two full hours isn’t one of them. And this is the frustrating part of reviewing Reichardt’s films. In a movie world populated by uninspired, unoriginal nonsense, First Cow is the real thing, a genuine work of art. But for too much of its running time, it’s agonizingly slow, and the story is almost entirely without suspense.
One can see why First Cow’s leisurely pace may strike some as overdrawn. But calling the film lethargic, or chiding Reichardt for its alleged lack of suspense, seems a little far-fetched. It bears remembering, as Peter Bradshaw warns at The Guardian, that this “tremendously engaging story” does something “that very few movies do: mention money. Something very palpable is at stake, the jeopardy is real and it’s a question of survival.” More fundamentally still, as Adam Nayman contends at The Ringer,
One of the components of Reichardt’s mastery is that she trusts the audience’s intelligence and attention span enough to craft a cinema of traces, of small things suggesting larger truths. Her low-budget, self-edited dramas are exemplars of indie engineering, but they’re also impossible structures, somehow bigger on the inside than on the outside. 
Which brings us back to the start, and to that chance encounter with two skeletons in the woods. The film’s preamble is no spoiler, and calling it so would be to fail to appreciate all the faith Reichardt places in our ability to fill in the blanks, and actively participate in the creation of the world she beckons us into. The framing device, writes Justin Chang at the L.A. Times,
…feels like the narrative equivalent of dangling a carrot — as if the journey would be less interesting if we didn’t already know the destination. But Reichardt, who has spent her career resisting the obvious, sidesteps this trap with her usual sturdy, unfussy artistry. Even if you think you know how this story is going to end, you may be surprised by how much she entrusts to the viewer’s imagination. Compelling history, like compelling historical fiction, is always more than a simple record of what happened to whom.  
The skeletons’ identities may become immediately apparent, but finding out who those bones belonged to was never First Cow’s chief concern. That would be our relationship with History: who gets to write it, what they include, and what’s left behind.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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