FIRST COW (2020, Kelly Reichardt)
Opens with a dog and a young woman in present-day Oregon digging up two human skeletons in the woods. Reichardt spends more time on this sequence than you’d expect — at least twice as many setups and cuts — in order to draw your attention to what comes next: a gloved hand in Davy-Crockett-era 19th century Oregon Territory yanking mushrooms from the soil for cooking. This is boilerplate Reichardt: the stark presentation of images begging the audience to do the work. We end up where we start; you are what you eat; circle of living things, etc.
She then shifts gears away from the philosophical and spends about an hour establishing the friendship between a white frontiersman and a Chinese fugitive as they team up to steal the milk from the settlement’s only cow, and use it to bake “oily cakes” that they’ll sell for enough money to continue their journey. Outlaw-ism turns to capitalism turns to the establishment of everything that is America. To that end, this is a lot more fun to chew on during the drive home than it is to watch. In between the arresting opening and the typically abrupt, beautiful-but-ominous ending, there are a number of awkward and frankly terrible performances from non-professional actors (made worse by the commanding presence of the likes of Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner, bolstering perfectly fine lead work by Magaro and Lee). And I can’t remember a film with audio work this bad; so much of the dialogue sounds clearly ADR’d, with the foley work prominently forward in the mix to the point where it sounds like we’re watching a 1970s kung fu movie. Not the kind of shoddy craftsmanship I’d have expected on her seventh feature — but Reichardt is so good with composition, non-preachy dialogue, and small stories with grand ambitions that you mostly forgive these shortcomings. This isn’t one of her best films, but mediocre Reichardt is still smarter than your average bear, and you’ll leave the theater really wanting a donut.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020, Leigh Whannell)
It’s telling that the most suspenseful sequence in this movie has nothing to do with invisibility — it’s the opening few minutes, when Moss is escaping her abusive husband in the dead of night. Because the premise of this umpteenth take on the Wells novel is something Whannell spitballed off the top of his head in a pitch meeting with Blumhouse and Universal (before it was fast-tracked into production and released less than 12 months after US and 19 months after UPGRADE): it focuses on the victim of domestic violence, and asks us to believe women. Seems like an obvious take, but one we haven’t seen before — the titular man is a villainous monster whose head we’re never in, and who we never see outside of the POV of Moss’s unhinged, gaslighted protagonist. He’s not just invisible because of his brilliant invention; his crimes are invisible to anyone who won’t sit right next to the wife, watching her life get destroyed.
Whannell takes that premise and runs with it, letting Moss carry the entire load and she really lets ‘er rip throughout this — sometimes a little too much (she behaves so crazily at times you can’t even blame everyone else for thinking she’s insane) — proving she has as much range as you’ll give her. And while Moss grounds the battered-wife angle, Whannell’s shoddy, first-draft-scented script provides his usual grindhouse pleasures. It’s gory, unsettling, and revels in B-movie atmosphere. Sure, the story doesn’t make as much sense as you wish it would, and some details are slightly risible (what kind of cop does a covert stakeout with the dome light on in his car?) but what you remember days after watching this is the uncommon degree of control over camera movement, off-screen and on-screen space, silence-as-a-weapon, and general tone of unease, all serving to deliver the goods in a movie that puts a new horror spin on the concept of how difficult it is for abused spouses to get justice, and just how much of the world seems dedicated to choosing the side of the invisible man.