First Cow is a quiet triumph of a film that follows the personal journey of its two protagonists, men on the run from vengeful hunters. They dream of becoming rich by secretly using a landowner’s prized dairy cow. Many people who have watched the film have noted that the editing feels soft, intimate, and gentle, which is achieved through the film’s director and editor Kelly Reichardt’s ability to tell the story through suggestion.
Reichardt explores themes of friendship, environmentalism, colonialism, and classism. These heavy themes could have been handled with a clumsy hand, but Reichart’s use of the background, jump cuts, and sound design influence how the viewer perceives and interacts with the film.
The film opens with an image of a barge on a river, then cuts to a barren field. The shot is simple and only tells us a limited amount of information. As a viewer, we only know that the scene is set in the present time due to the clothes the woman wears and the sounds of cars on the highway, a train nearby, and an airplane flying overhead. Most films would try to eliminate these everyday sounds, but Reichardt uses these sounds to ground the opening shot in the present day. The opening shot sets the groundwork for how the story will be told to us: through subtle details in the background.
Then, the woman in the opening scene stumbles onto a grave, and we are presented with a shot of two skeletons lying next to each other in a dull and decaying landscape. The shot of the two skeletons feels otherworldly as if it doesn’t exist in any certain period of time. Reichardt lingers on the shot, letting it act as a divider in time for the audience to wonder briefly how these skeletons got to this place, before jump-cutting to a new scene that is full of life and color.
The new scene we are in is easily identifiable as a bygone era as a worn-in boot enters the frame. Reichardt transports the film in the 1820s through a quick cut and color grading the landscape to be bright. The contrast between the two shots is the establishing shot of the film that brings to life the themes of the film that a linear timeline would have failed to establish.
The two skeletons in 'First Cow'Credit: A24
Reichardt adds background elements like a tent with a family cooking dinner or a man passing by on a boat to emphasize the themes and mood of the film. She takes the pressure off of the protagonist to carry the story by creating a larger world that has multiple moving parts. These actions done by the background characters may not have anything to do with the scene, but they still interact with the world of the protagonist, creating patterns that the viewer doesn’t recognize until the film is over.
Most films have a primary thread of action that involves the protagonists. Their actions make up the core of the scene and help propel the plot forward. Typical story elements such as establishing shots of location or action or reactions of the extras contextualize the main action. Reichardt takes a different approach than most filmmakers by lingering on these story elements to suggest a larger world than the one our main characters are in.
A wonderful example of this is a scene that takes place in a bar. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) sits in the bar as he overhears a conversation about the cow while waiting to unknowingly reunite with King Lu (Orion Lee). While the main plot exists, the camera also focuses on two men having a conversation which leads to a fight that is taken outside. The fight happens off-screen, but the audience can still hear the men struggling and hitting one another. Instead of following the action, Reichardt stays with a baby that a man left with Cookie to watch so he could go watch a fight. The camera stays with the baby as Cookie and King Lu leave the bar and the audience’s concern for the men fighting and the baby who is left alone on the bar is mixed together to create a unique experience of suspense.
The first cow in 'First Cow'Credit: A24
Reichardt’s choice to linger on side characters rather than follow our main characters is what creates suspense in a unique and strangely effective way. The viewer gets to see the reactions of the side characters who feel cheated or betrayed by something the protagonist indirectly did. Reichardt creates depth and richness that surrounds the protagonist while suggesting that other stories are at play. The film isn’t being selfish in whose story gets to be told, because they inevitably intertwine with one another.
If we look back at the opening scene, we understand that the shot of the skeletons is connected in some way to the first person we see in the next shot. The connection may not be clear right away, but the fear and suspense build as the realization dawns on the viewer that our main characters are the skeletons and that they must die at the end of the film. The skeletons haunt the film, and it isn’t until the storylines of all the characters collide at the end that the haunting can finally end.
The end of the film is both satisfying and unsatisfying. The strange duality of the end is marked by the decision to not show the protagonists’ deaths. As Cookie and King Lu are caught between two acts of violence that threaten their lives, Cookie needs to lie down due to a head injury. Both men lie down, and the frame lingers once again on the two men resting before a jump cut into the darkness of the credit sequence.
The act of violence to the two men can only be assumed by the viewer much like the fights that take place off-camera. The viewer doesn't get the satisfaction of knowing what exactly happened to Cookie and King Lu, but why show us when we can assume it from what we’ve watched? What would have changed if Reichardt showed us the death?
'First Cow'Credit: A24
The gentleness of the film comes from the choice to push violence into the background and focus on the stories. All of the elements of the film create a plot that has pieces missing, allowing the viewer to interpret. It’s like choosing your adventure: Reichardt created a skeleton for us to follow, and it is our job to fill in the gaps. By allowing the viewer the opportunity to imagine rather than see, you are creating something gentle and engaging rather than telling the full story.
Did you watch First Cow? Let us know your favorite shot or scene from the film in the comments below.
Source: Thomas Flight