For the first time since 1992, a Western may attempt a high-profile coup for the best picture Oscar
By Guest Writer Michael Clawson
With movie theaters shuttered, studios pushing and then re-pushing opening dates and an increasing number of movies foregoing theatrical releases in favor of streaming platforms, it’s safe to say there has not been a year at the movies quite like 2020. But one of the highlights from this disaster of a summer is Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, a film that has silently and with little fanfare, slipped into the running for best picture at next year’s Academy Award.
Reichardt’s seventh feature film is about two on-the-run travelers in Oregon territory in the 1820s. The men’s lives intersect with that of cow that seems to drift into the picture by way of a raft on a magical current. “She enters the screen floating upriver on a raft, transported across the continent as an ostentatious display of wealth by a local trader attempting to force his old world into this new one,” David Sims writes in his Atlantic review of the film. “Reichardt’s movie is a quiet study of such incongruities—the story of a docile, domesticated creature entering the untamed wild, and an intimate friendship blossoming amid the cruelty of developing capitalism. It’s a small, understated movie, but it’s also one of the best of the year so far.”
Sims isn’t alone when calling it the best of the year. A.O. Scott’s New York Times review sums his thoughts up in the subheadline: “Set in the mid-19th-century Oregon Territory, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is a fable, a western, a buddy picture and a masterpiece.”
Movie theaters are expected to stay closed for much of 2020, which puts First Cow in an interesting position: it could become the first Western to win best picture since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992. And what’s maybe even more remarkable is how few Westerns have even won the top honor. Dances With Wolves did it two years before Unforgiven, but the next film requires you to go way back through the dust of history to Wesley Ruggles’ 1931 epic Cimarron. Looking at other Oscar categories, or even just nominations, Westerns do turn up more frequently, but still less than you may be expecting: the True Grit remake by the Coen Brothers did quite well in 2010, as did Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained two years later, and in 2015 The Revenant missed the best picture award by the width of bearclaw.
Opening up the term “Western” to other pictures, that share many of the themes of some of the old cowboy films, does give us movies such as 2016’s Hell or High Water, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and a best picture winner, No Country for Old Men, the 2007 Coen Brothers adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel.
So history is not really on First Cow’s side—in the director’s defense, she doesn’t consider it a Western—but 2020 has been a strange year and when it comes to the Oscars, all bets are off.