Being subtle is a difficult skill to master. Fortunately, we can take notes on how to use the background and use jump cuts to tell our stories.
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 getting rich by secretly using a landowner’s coveted dairy cow. Many people who have seen the film have found the cut to feel soft, intimate, and gentle, thanks to the ability of the film’s director and editor Kelly Reichardt to tell the story through suggestion.
Reichardt researches topics such as friendship, environmental protection, colonialism and classism. These heavy issues could have been handled with a clumsy hand, but Reichart’s use of the background, skip cuts, and sound design affect how the viewer perceives and interacts with the film.
Thomas flight breaks the editing style of First cow and how it creates gentleness through well thought-out picture and sound elements and unique storytelling. View his full video here:
The film starts with the image of a barge on a river and then cuts to a barren field. The recording is simple and only tells us a limited amount of information. As viewers, we only know that the scene is in the present through the clothes of the woman and the sounds of cars on the highway, a nearby train and an airplane flying overhead. Most films would try to eliminate these everyday noises, but Reichardt uses these noises to justify the opening setting in the present. The opening shot lays the foundation for how the story is told to us: through subtle details in the background.
Then the woman in the opening scene stumbles on a grave and we get a shot of two skeletons lying next to each other in a desolate and decaying landscape. The inclusion of the two skeletons feels otherworldly, as if it does not exist in a certain period of time. Reichardt lingers on the recording and lets it act as a time separator so that the audience asks themselves briefly how these skeletons got to this place before jumping to a new scene full of life and colors.
The new scene we’re in is easily recognizable as a bygone era as a worn boot invades the frame. Reichardt transports the film to the 1820s with a quick cut and colors the landscape brightly. The contrast between the two takes is the founding shot of the film, which brings the themes of the film to life that a linear timeline would have failed to establish.
Reichardt adds background elements like a tent with a family cooking dinner or a husband by going on a boat to accentuate the theme and mood of the film. It relieves the protagonist of the pressure to carry the story by creating a larger world with several moving parts. These background characters’ actions may have nothing to do with the scene, but they still interact with the protagonist’s world, creating patterns that the viewer doesn’t recognize until the end of the film.
Most films have a primary storyline that involves the protagonists. Your actions form the core of the scene and help move the plot forward. Typical story elements such as the definition of location or action shots or reactions of the extras contextualize the main plot. Reichardt took a different approach than most filmmakers by suggesting those story elements lingering on a larger world than those that our main characters are.
A great example of this is a scene that takes place in a bar. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) sits in the bar overhearing a conversation about the cow as he unwittingly reunites with King Lu (Orion Lee). While the main plot exists, the camera also focuses on two men having a conversation that leads to a fight that is brought outside. The fight takes place off-screen, but the audience can still hear the men fighting and beating each other. Instead of following the effect, Reichardt stays with a baby that a man left to see cookies so he could go see a fight. The camera stays with the baby as Cookie and King Lu leave the bar and the audience’s concern for the fighting men and the baby who is left alone on the bar mixes into a unique experience of suspense.
Reichardt’s choice to dwell on the page characters rather than follow our main characters is what creates tension in a unique and strangely effective way. The viewer gets to see the reactions of the supporting characters who feel betrayed or betrayed by something that the protagonist has done indirectly. Reichardt creates depth and richness that surrounds the protagonist and at the same time suggests that other stories are involved. The film is not selfish, the story of which is told, because they inevitably interlock.
If we look back at the opening scene, we understand that the shot of the skeletons is in some way related to the first person that we see in the next shot. The connection may not be immediately clear, but the fear and tension build up as the viewer realizes 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’s not until the storylines of all the characters collide at the end that the haunted thing can finally end.
The ending of the film is both satisfactory and unsatisfactory. The strange duality of the end is shaped by the decision not to show the death of the protagonists. When Cookie and King Lu are caught between two acts of violence that threaten their lives, Cookie is forced to lie down due to a head injury. Both men lie down, and the frame lingers again with the two men resting before a jump into the darkness of the credits sequence is cut.
Similar to the fights that take place outside the camera, the viewer can only guess at the act of violence against the two men. The viewer won’t get the satisfaction of knowing what exactly happened to Cookie and King Lu, but why show us when we can take it from what we’ve seen? What would have changed if Reichardt had shown us death?
The smoothness of the film comes from the decision to put violence in the background and focus on the stories. All the elements of the film form a plot in which parts are missing that allow the viewer an interpretation. It’s like choosing your adventure: Reichardt created a skeleton to follow, and it’s our job to fill in the gaps. By allowing the viewer to imagine rather than see something, you are creating something soft and exciting rather than telling the full story.
Did you watch First cow? Let us know your favorite shot or scene from the movie in the comments below.