By Mónica Delgado
Generally in western, as a male territory, best friends become rivals. Either because they fight for money, women or family quarrels. This is the case, for example, in George Seaton’s Showdown (1973), where Dean Martin and Rock Hudson end up becoming enemies, since one becomes a sheriff and the other a villain; plus they fall in love with the same woman. Although, there are also the real “buddy” movies, like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), that, without exploiting the homoerotic side, embraced the friendship of a real, tough and manly friendship between hardcore men in times where it was necessary to attack the post may 68 “new masculinities”, the summer of love or the cries against the Vietnam war. Then, where among a vast number of representations of what “being a man” must be, a fruit of the codes of western, we have a film like First Cow, which rethinks the roles, a plot almost stripped of female characters.
If it’s indeed true that the American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt had already made films starred by men, like in Old Joy (2006) where she also explores relationships between friends in a particular way (two guys who go camping to confront their problems), in First Cow there’s an intention of endowing the genre with a scarce referent in the genre. But this interest responds also to the consolidation of a creative relationship of years between the filmmaker and his screenwriter, novelist Jonathan Raymond (who collaborated in Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff), whose trademark in the plots or narrative motifs is evident. The film starts with some classical elements of western, and answers to a specific period in America’s history, but also to some codes of buddy movie, because, before anything, like William Blake’s epigraph says “The bird, a nest; the spider, a spider web; the men, friendship.”.
In 2004, Raymond published The Half-Life, where he narrates two parallel stories in different times, about the nature of friendship. One, at the beginning of the XIX century (about two friends who run away from some merchants) and the other, set in the 80’s (about two friends who find two bodies in the woods). In the project that she realizes with Reichardt, the plot of the women is eliminated, and the tale of the encounter of this two friends is contextualized. One is a cook (John Magaro), who abandons a fur hunter’s caravan to go find a future, uncertain, together with a Chinese entrepreneur (Orion Lee) who is escaping from death. In this way, following the path opened by Old Joy, this film by Reichardt deals with the relationship of these two persons from their differences, but above everything, it’s focused to show than inside this nefarious panorama of colonizers and merchants, there is indeed a different type of men.
Like in the masterful Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy or Certain women, Reichardt gives the environment a preponderant role (like in every western film, also), utilizing several open shots, or simply through scenes that need to place its characters in this density, something that in First Cow reveals itself as a hostile rural environment for hunting of feeding. And, like the rules of the genre dictate, the bad guys here are extravagant foreigners or vile men who resist to watch other people happy. In this foundational America that Reichardt creates, the figure of these edenic men is posed, men willing to steal some cow’s milk to create the dream business: selling some fried food that gives its consumers joy and fascination.
The film is a great flashback, which opens almost in present time, with a couple of scenes that witness the finding of certain corpses by a young woman, who digs and leaves the bones bare. From this moment, the filmmaker places ourselves in a different time, to solve the puzzle. And the Blake’s quote who opens the film, already raises the ontological frame in this film, putting in images this intrinsic nature of human being in its instinctive and logical aspect of friendships, which in this time in history (American history), sounds way too optimist and revealing.
You might say that First Cow “feminizes” somehow this tough and relentless roles of the classical western movies. From Reichardt’s eye, the relations between men, free from any homoerotic subtext, are possible from something that has always been forgiven in this type of films: sensibility, the joy of the senses (touching or taste, for example), tenderness, or from this brotherhood which is alien to bullets, money or duels. And this becomes the most interesting part of the film, where, despite not having female characters, the gaze which Reichardt exerts over her characters humanizes them in such a way, that we feel identified with them. However, there’s an element on the mise-en-scène, the use of music, which seems to overemphasize the goodness of the leads, like if this amiable cadence is warning us about this out-of-the-ordinary characters, who cook delicately, who whisper to restless babies, who share dreams and sufferings, are noble and good people. Anyway, one of the favorite films from this edition of Berlinale.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Script: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editing: Kelly Reichardt
Music: William Tyler
Sound design: Leslie Shatz
Production design: Anthony Gasparro
Art director: Lisa Ward
Costume: April Napier
Makeup: Jessica Needham
Producers: Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, Neil Kopp
U.S.A., 2019, 122 min