Showroom Cinema: Frontier the land of opportunity?

Since the release of her debut feature film River of Grass in 1994, American film director/screenwriter/editor Kelly Reichardt has epitomised the contemporary minimalist film movement.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 12:00 am
First Cow.
First Cow.

With several of her works reflecting her own struggles as an independent filmmaker, her carefully restrained stories navigate tales of outsiders and those existing on the periphery of society and seeking their place in the world. From Old Joy (2006) to Meek’s Cutoff (2010) via Wendy and Lucy (2008), Reichardt’s body of work is particularly preoccupied with the Pacific Northwest, a landscape she revisits once again in her latest film, First Cow.

Set in 1820s Oregon and following a community of fur-trappers, First Cow is a western of sorts, though Reichardt removes much of hyper-masculinity and common signifiers of the genre. Here, we follow the story of kind-hearted chef Otis “Cookie” Figowtiz (John Magaro), who stumbles upon a Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), a fugitive.

The two outsiders quickly become companions and embark on a simple business scheme in the hope of earning enough money to pursue their respective dreams: King Lu wishes to own a farm and Cookie wants to run his own bakery. The duo steal the milk from the Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) cow at night, using it to make batches of rich, sweet biscuits that become instantly popular. Their success is short-lived, as while their entrepreneurial actions barely feel like a crime, the cow and her milk are explicitly the property of the Chief Factor. The frontier may be the land of opportunity, but not for everyone.

First Cow reunites Reichardt with writer Jonathan Raymond for their fifth collaboration. Loosely based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life, Reichardt’s film is economically told, produced for approximately $2 million, it is modest while quietly heartbreaking and intimate. This intimacy is matched by the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio; there are no wide-angle vistas, and the frame highlights the small world we share with Cookie and King-Lu.

First Cow screens from Friday May 28. Tickets on sale now. Visit showroomworkstation.org.uk/first-cow