Kelly Reichardt’s films have a way of sneaking up on you, of lulling you into a false sense of boredom or tranquility and then suddenly you’re pondering the inherent nature of capitalism or the uncertainty of life as we know it. She’s not known for diatribes or soap box filmmaking because she’s far too subtle to be known for either of those things. Her ability to tell her audience so much in a single, lingering shot is somewhat unparalleled. Some call her pretentious or ponderous, I call her an auteur. “Auteurism” has become something of a dirty word among cinephiles who think people need to be reminded that filmmaking is a team sport. Filmmaking is a team sport, but every team has a captain or a coach. Auteurs are the greatest team captains working in Hollywood, and Reichardt can count herself among them.
Her latest film First Cow just might be her best. It’s a leisurely western about two stragglers (John Magaro, Orion Lee) on the frontier, both with big aspirations but little money or property to realize them. They bond over biscuits and whiskey and soon find themselves stealing milk from a local scion (Toby Jones) to support a thriving little business selling oily cakes at a nearby trading fort. This wealthy man is the only man in town with a dairy cow (a picturesque female named Eve), one shipped all the way from Europe, and he’s taken a liking to these cakes and these two men in particular. They must tread carefully or suffer the wrath of such greedy men who regard lashings as motivation for the weak and destitute. Out of desperation, they don’t always tread carefully and perhaps some decisions come across as inorganic, too scripted for a film that otherwise avoids anything remotely contrived. For his part, Jones has made a recent career of fine-tuning a pompous villain, the quiet menace and clueless money, and his Chief Factor is no different.
Reichardt uses silence better than almost anyone and here it’s used to highlight the unspoken affection between Cookie and King-Lu, the aforementioned stragglers. Magaro and Lee make an endearing couple of wayward men, penniless yet no less capable of greatness. Their friendship is the backbone of the film, the heart and soul to occasionally distract us from a subtext that is quite aggressive and even pessimistic, if not exactly unrealistic. As she has done throughout her career, Kelly is subverting our starry-eyed American myths, laying bare our whitewashing of history and the founding of our country. Through Cookie and King-Lu’s inevitable conflict with the local scion, she is taking to task the unfortunate realities of unfettered or unruly capitalism. Those with less means are forced to make moral concessions to get ahead, and then suffer the consequences at the hands of those who have means, who were born with a silver spoon and often engage in far worse moral concessions.
Male filmmakers have reaped the benefits of auteur pedestals in the film business. It’s only fair that female directors be afforded the same benefits. Forgive me for stating the obvious: “Auteurism” is not a dirty word, but a designation for those with a singular vision and assortment of talents, tricks, and habits that reveal themselves film over film. What a peculiar coincidence to find such a word is verboten at precisely the point in time at which female directors are finally getting more opportunities to compete with their masculine brethren. From Wendy & Lucy to Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves to First Cow, she has consistently asserted herself as a woman of gentle touches and grand political gestures. She’s one of the few with an excellent handle on both subtlety and subtext. She’s the definition of an auteur, and First Cow is her most eloquent evocation yet of an anti-capitalist ethos.