Director Kelly Reichardt is a singular voice in American cinema, and it almost feels like a miracle, not only that she’s able to make films, but that her work has found ever bigger audiences and greater acclaim. Her typically quiet dramas are all westerns in their own way, from the 2008 breakthrough Wendy and Lucy to the 2010 period piece Meek’s Cutoff and the current-day setting of 2018’s Certain Women. First Cow continues that trend with what is perhaps even more of a traditional Western, for better and for worse.

The better is that Reichardt really transports us, taking the viewer to 1820s Oregon to trace the trials and tribulations of life in an unforgiving wilderness. Reichardt is always attuned to those struggling to make their way through the natural world in one way or another, but the focused time and place of First Cow really makes that struggle come to vibrant life. She also shows the often-concealed diversity of frontier life, which depended so much on Asian labor. The story finds protagonist Cookie (John Magaro) joining up with King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run from a group of Russians. The two men steal milk from the first cow in the region (the only one around) in order to start their own small business selling doughnut-like “oily-cakes.”

The worse, relatively, is that like many Westerns of the past, Reichardt’s film is pretty male and pretty white, despite King-Lu’s central role. It’s disconcerting to see Reichardt, who has explored so many exceptional and multi-layered female characters in her movies, have so few here. It’s not that Reichardt should be required to tell women’s stories because she is a woman. It’s just that we’ve moved beyond the time for all-male stories. And while this is an historical tale, it is also fiction. Reichardt has the ability to make her film with more women and people of color yet does not. Coming off the heels of Certain Women, which told several different, distinct and surprising stories featuring women, First Cow feels like a step back. Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond, who also wrote the novel Half-Life on which First Cow is based, really should have fleshed out this beautiful world they’ve built with women and people of color.

“Meditative” is a word that is perhaps thrown around a bit too much when it comes to cinema today, because a lot of the time that just means “boring” to most viewers. That, coupled with the fact that attention spans are strained at the moment, could have spelled trouble for First Cow. But Reichardt, in the grand tradition of filmmakers like Agnès Varda, Abbas Kiarostami and even the Coen brothers, is a filmmaker who can deliver a truly meditative experience. Her camera is always capturing something, whether during a hushed conversation or a silent walk through the forest. She doesn’t allocate silence in order to build tension or to stretch a mood; rather, she gives the viewer’s eyes and ears the time and space to take it all in. She allows her situations time to settle in, and she allows her characters’ few words to take root in the minds of those they are directed towards.

First Cow is a story of ingenuity and unlikely friendship and, like the best Westerns, it is about humanity’s unique ability to adapt and master new landscapes, both natural and societal. It’s about isolation and desperation, and about building something from nothing. Being a Kelly Reichardt film, it is beautifully filmed and sensitively considered. Still, it would have been even better if the level of craft had been matched by a level of inclusivity.

It‘s pretty male, and pretty white.
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