A still from Kelly Reichardt's First Cow

Nature Does the Healing in Kelly Reichardt's Films

Watch her latest "First Cow," now streaming, then escape your city-life by making your way down the rest of her oeuvre.

by Caitlin Quinlan
Aug 7 2020, 9:30am

A still from Kelly Reichardt's First Cow

From my bedroom window I can see a vast, beautiful oak tree. Sprawling in its reach and majestic in stature, it stands guard over the smaller trees and shrubs nestled around its trunk, those growing wild in neighbor gardens or sprouting in the back alleyway behind the houses. Sitting on the bed, when I gaze out of the window the alignment of green is such that the rest of my north London suburban town landscape disappears, smothered by nature. The outdoors is awash with veridian and sage, a crisp invitation to explore a hidden city woodland. A lone aerial antenna in the distance is all that disrupts my fantasy of forest-dwelling. 

In the midst of our current confinement to our immediate neighborhoods, and when this illusion of wilderness beyond panes of glass couldn’t suffice, I turned to the films of Kelly Reichardt. Streaming on VOD platforms in the US, and hopefully extending elsewhere soon, is Reichardt’s latest. The masterful First Cow is an ambient period drama, a tale of a friendship and business venture propelled by stolen milk in the early nineteenth century Pacific Northwest. It grapples with many of the themes explored by the filmmaker in her previous work; the abandonment and isolation felt by the underserved of rural America, the resonance of community and friendship in these landscapes, the gentle placidities of everyday life. 

It’s a film deeply embedded in its landscape, a visual and aural feast of sublime natural environment. Soft, soaked leaves compress underfoot, canary yellow mushrooms are plugged from their roots with a satisfying pop, blueberries tumble melodically from branches to bowl. The lush Pacific Northwest has provided the backdrop for nearly all of Reichardt’s feature-length work, an inviting presence of greenery and expansive wildland that contrasts the closeness of her characters’ livelihoods. In 2006’s Old Joy, perhaps _First Cow_’s closest narrative companion in Reichardt’s oeuvre, the tender journey of friends Mark and Kurt, traipsing around on a camping trip, culminates in a visit to a secluded hot spring deep in the forest. It’s a hugely sensorial moment; a bucket plunged deep into fresh water needed to calm the shimmer of steam rising from the spring’s source, the twinkling sounds of water flowing filling the air with a rainforest symphony. 

Nature has not always been a tender ally in Reichardt’s work. The harsh vastness of the desert in Meek’s Cutoff, for example, or the forest in Wendy and Lucy which brings little sanctuary, offer severe challenges to her characters. In Night Moves, her explicitly environmental thriller, protecting nature comes at a severe cost. Nonetheless, the filmmaker’s tendency to bask the same characters in small moments of peace through a connection to the outside world makes for pleasurable viewing against the backdrop of the hardships and melancholy woven into their stories. The promise of nature bookends Wendy and Lucy; in the opening scene Wendy is out walking with her dog Lucy, throwing a large stick around a secluded, grassy clearing in a moment of sweet companionship, and at the film’s close Wendy travels on to her new future elsewhere, the dark thicket of Oregon trees passing her by. The community farm in Night Moves or the turning point of the discovered tree in Meek’s Cutoff provide some hope in these works too.

In 2016’s Certain Women, Reichardt’s last film before First Cow, snowy mountain peaks and scopic fields, despite their magnitude, offer an unassuming setting for a trilogy of quiet, humble stories about four women understanding life’s disruptions and confusions. The third story in the film, that of isolated farmhand Jamie, is the most remote; the farm sits a four hour drive away from the town other characters live in, its frozen land buffeted by chestnut-colored horses. The focus on Jamie offers sensitive relief from the busier (by Reichardt’s standards) preceding narratives of local town life and interpersonal drama, completing the work with a reflective portrait of rural land as a personal retreat. Some of the most beautiful moments in Reichardt’s films are the most melancholy, but as they play out in the expanses of American wilderness we are lulled into a tranquil state of understanding the truths life presents us. 

It is within this philosophy that Reichardt opens First Cow with an ending of sorts, buried within Oregon’s mud. The future of her characters is laid out before us as a place of departure for the rest of their narrative, creating a space for gentle storytelling that absorbs the specific moment of their life and the beauty of their surroundings. Within her films floating downriver, gazing across skies and fields, open spaces, lush forests, almost tasting the freshness of the air, denotes a pledge of harmony and appreciation for an exterior world that is able to tame interior strife. These works have provided a gateway to the outdoors currently out of reach for me, another window to gaze out of onto a vision of unlimited space and the luxury of free exploration. 

first cow
Kelly Reichardt