When indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s latest film First Cow opened just before the COVID lockdown, she drew a line in the sand separating her queer feminist agenda from Hollywood convention. First Cow became the most critically acclaimed film of 2020 and now that it’s back via streaming services, Reichardt’s rejection of genre tradition becomes part of the recently escalated chaos; it’s a renewed threat.
Reichardt’s anti-Western, set in the Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, counters the historical mythology of strong white male founders through two sensitive (read queer) cisgender males, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), who partner covertly. Using their skills at cooking and survival, they sell baked goods to the treacherous Gold Rush pioneers, a venture in early entrepreneurship — and minority group audacity — that costs them their lives. (Reichardt’s story, adapted with Jonathan Raymond from his novel, is a long, mournful flashback that begins with discovering the two men’s corpses, a historical outrage like 2017’s woke drama Mudbound.)
This reset of the past accords with Obama’s “You didn’t build that!” allegation. Reichardt posits that American capitalism is based on treacherous, murderous competition; she reveals her bias by patronizing Cookie and King-Lu as victims. She dooms her enterprising mixed-race couple, thereby blaming the melting pot rather than praising it. The duo steals milk from a neighbor’s cow, Reichardt’s symbol of nature, yet she disregards the in-place system of ownership that renders her thieving couple as plunderers — a slip-up in her nascent Communist narrative.
It’s important that Reichardt endorse oppressed-group representatives Cookie and King-Lu in order to oppose the white male pioneer legend she despises.
“I just don’t understand [macho men] — I don’t get it,” Reichardt told Mel Magazine.
It’s beyond my comprehension. Like, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the idea of the shirtless man on top of the roof — the white man who beats up Bruce Lee, saves the damsel in distress, and sets on fire the “scummy hippies” — I’m just like, “Really?” People love it, but I don’t understand, especially in the climate we live in, how the macho-man thing just keeps being interesting to anybody.
Reichardt’s woebegone heroes can only interest the pop generation that has canceled John Wayne and fully bought into the idea of American heterosexual wickedness. First Cow plays out Reichardt’s misandry in highbrow terms: quoting William Blake (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man a friend”) and then by art-movie stealth. Cookie and King-Lu are metrosexual prototypes: Cookie is maternal; he cooks, cares for a child, and cleans the abode while King-Lu is handy, chopping firewood and directing their business project. Both are seen through door- and window-framing shots that diagram the nonbinary division of labor. Reichardt’s indie-queer aesthetic is tendentious; she teaches modish ways of viewing gender roles, social roles, and history. (Lesley Woods did it better, with humor and aplomb, in The Au Pairs’ two rousing post-punk albums, Playing with a Different Sex and Sense and Sensuality.)
As a cineaste, Reichardt’s challenge to art-film style goes beyond Tarantino-bashing. Her 2010 Western, Meek’s Cutoff, was based on a castration pun, while First Cow acknowledges the Pacific Northwest’s Antifa roots in its reproof of American industry (although not indicting the area’s tech firms). Her opening image of a modern commercial freighter matches her period image of the cow arriving by trawler — think The Revenant as made by a social activist. She deliberately applies nihilism to the revisionist Western, as when the actor René Auberjonois makes a curious appearance as a skeptical outsider, echoing his small role in the classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s dreamlike yet realistic recall of American commerce, cutthroat competition — and romance.
Reichardt’s male-male narrative should be romantic — and inspiring like the pre-feminist entrepreneurial melodrama Lucy Gallant. But Reichardt’s dark, desiccated point of view is strictly negative. (“This is no place for cows. If it was, God would have put one here.” “No place for white men, either.” That exchange typifies Reichardt’s idea of local color, plus ecological scolding.) All the rich vision and emotion that made McCabe & Mrs. Miller magnificent — including Altman’s genius use of Leonard Cohen ballads and his evocation of William Faulkner — are missing. We sit and watch Reichardt play out her bitter thesis without being astonished.
At two hours-plus, Reichardt stretches the narrative, making obvious points, such as wasting Toby Jones and Ewan Bremner in half-characterizations of Europe-derived class and economic enmity that lack even the Western pulp sarcasm of the Coen brothers’ Buster Scruggs. Critics who tout Reichardt’s relevance put politics before art. And she rewards them with cynicism: “History isn’t here yet; it’s coming,” King-Lu says. “Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.” That’s Reichardt’s fundamentally-transform-America line in the sand: a disdainful revision of traditional masculinity and America’s past. First Cow never achieves McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s tragedy status; Reichardt’s rewrite of American history is bathos.