She ranks alongside such luminaries as Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Woman on Fire), Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Naomi Kawase (Vision) and the Oscar-winning Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) as one of the most impressive women filmmakers at work today. Unfortunately, with the exception of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016), none of Kelly Reichardt’s other features have been publicly showcased in India.
Chance to make amends. Mubi is streaming her latest film First Cow (2019). Set in a frontier town in the Pacific Northwest during the hardscrabble days of the early nineteenth century, the plot is beguilingly simple.
Opening in the present day, when the skeletal remains of two humans are found, the narrative seamlessly rewinds to the past. A quote by the visionary poet-painter William Blake “The bird a nest, a spider a web, man friendship” serves as an epigraph to the film.
Appropriately enough, the screenplay, loosely adapted from the novel The Half Life by her frequent collaborator (and in this instance co-scenarist) Jonathan Raymond, chronicles the intimate friendship between a pair of travellers who collaborate on an unlikely business venture.
The two strangers – one a taciturn baker (John Magaro) and the other a more voluble Chinese fugitive (Orion Lee) – devise a get-rich-quick plan of making buttermilk biscuits for sale to fur trappers at the nearby trading outpost.
It helps that a wealthy British business (the ever-mercurial Toby Jones) has acquired the first, and only, cow that floats into view on a raft in a virtuoso long take.
Incidentally, the dairy animal is played by a one-film wonder named Eve who is arguably one of the most alluring non-human characters to have ever graced the big screen.
As the rumblings of nascent capitalism are felt, the outsider duo begin to fear for the outcome of their clever but dangerous scheme. The consequences of their actions reveal a corrupt and heartless capitalist culture (the same now as it was 200 years now).
Right from the start of her career, Reichardt has expressly steered clear of the trappings of mainstream cinema. Her intense, minimalist aesthetic established her as a scrupulous observer of marginalised lives in motion, human nature, and spectacular, if harsh, landscapes.
In First Cow, the relatively unknown lead actors make sure that we care about the everlasting friendship between the lonely duo striving to survive against the odds. The extraordinary cinematography (on 35mm celluloid in the vintage Academy ratio) by her regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and the low-key music sore by William Tyler add to the overall impact.
The film’s deliberate, leisurely pacing may not appeal to viewers with short attention spans. But those who surrender to the virtues of this precise, sometimes funny, and always deeply melancholic neo-Western might want to see it again, with the experience likely to be even more rewarding.
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