First Cow — 7/10

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.

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