First Cow (Review)

Kelly Reichardt is incredibly gifted at gleaning gold from atypical cinematic perspectives. This is most apparent in Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women (though also true of Wendy and Lucy) and continues, beautifully, in First Cow. In this film, we follow Cookie (John Magaro), a skilled cook who begins the film in a group of Trappers. During this expedition, he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee) and gives him necessary help at a moment of real vulnerability. This act of kindness and compassion echoes throughout the film, a film that is defined by the enduring friendship of these two characters and by small, intimate moments of connection.

Why Cookie is so atypical is due to his presentation. He is soft spoken, and rarely speaks, feeling like a man out of place that does not fit into the overtly masculine milieu around him. The film is set in 1820s Oregon, a time of opportunity for some and hardship for others. This sounds very familiar but the beauty of the film is its understanding of how these two factors are related, and how they coalesce in the main character. Cookie is a man who can bring a lot to society: when he is able to later, he makes delicious cakes that become the most popular thing in the local – for want of a better word – market. This gets him recognised by the local gentry, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and reaps him real financial rewards. At the start, though, Cookie is shown as somewhat useless. He brings little to the initial expedition and is maligned by the Trappers. This arc from seemingly unskilled to incredibly competent is merely defined by access to resources and due to the external environment. At the beginning of the film, we find mushrooms growing in the dirt and this symbolically resonates throughout the film: things flourish in the right environment.

On one level, this is a beautiful film about friendship. The centrepiece is the beautifully captured partnership between Cookie and King-Lu. The dialogue is sparse but the affection shown through the subtleties in their performances is just astounding. As mentioned, Magaro’s Cookie is reserved and cinematically atypical; Orion Lee’s King-Lu is also an atypical protagonist. We are used to this period as a filmic location, a fertile playground for stories depicting the American Dream – of which this is one (though a very different one). However, this film includes a pleasing diversity of perspectives that feels incredibly natural. King-Lu’s Chinese background is core to the story of the film, if not the plot per-se (though this is definitely a film that places story over plot). These wider insights and backgrounds make this a more fulfilling and engaging portrait of ‘The West’. The underlying concept of it as a land of opportunity feels less orchestrated. And while the film still clearly criticises this notion, it presents it as an overriding viewpoint – the diversity of perspectives just increases this idea of everybody trying to get something out of one place.

On its most satisfying level, this film functions as a very perceptive allegory about the relationship between labour and resources. Everything works as an effortlessly naturalistic portrait of rural living on the edge of modernity, but everything also works as a microcosm for society. After setting out its characters, we make our way to the core conceit of the film: Toby Jones’ Chief Factor has bought a cow. It is the first cow to reach the area and is, for reasons that will soon become clear, a very big deal. Chief Factor, however, has nothing he can really do with this cow. He is a landowner and he has received a literal means of production; his status has afforded it to him though he is obviously not the best person to have it. As farcical as it may seem, the cow is a status symbol. We learn early that getting the cow here was difficult. Three cows were supposed to arrive (one a calf) but only one survived the journey. Even at this point, we get the pointed idea that the opportunities afforded to the elite birth a toxic irresponsibility. However, Cookie is able to use the cow: he can turn its milk into beautiful cakes that nobody there has tasted before. The only issue is, though he has the skill and the products of his labour are in demand, he does not have access to the means of production.

This is where it becomes a buddy-crime-caper. King-Lu convinces Cookie to steal the cow’s milk by night and to sell the products of this stolen milk by day. They work together, King-Lu’s gift of the gab matching Cookie’s culinary skills, and we see how expertise reaps rewards. But we know that this expertise is not favoured by the system, and it only came to fruition when the means of production were in the right milking hand. All of this is very smartly constructed and creates a great portrait of the relationship between resources and labour. What is more interesting, though, is how the film effortlessly explores ideas of manufactured scarcity and the effects of monetisation.

The cow is an innate symbol of manufactured scarcity. It, quite simply, should not be there. There is this powerful point, repeatedly suggested in different ways, that this is a land of plenty in which its recent arrivals want something else (as opposed to the bounty it could easily offer them). It is a great illustration of the simple point that these new arrivals just don’t belong there. There is a great conversation later about beavers, about how they have different uses but are perhaps going out of fashion. An indigenous resident points out, however, that the recent arrivals don’t even take the best bit of the beaver: the tail. The people who have forced their way into this land don’t even want the things it has to offer, they want the things they know or the things they attach subjective worth to. It is very telling that, when Chief Factor discovers the cake stall, he is enamoured with Cookie’s cakes because they remind him of home, of London bakeries. It is a clever symbol of his actual role in this location and how he exists in opposition to its reality – also shown by him bringing a cow to it. In a way, the bringing of a cow – which came with real loss, and ultimately is shown to only be a catalyst for unnecessary conflict – is a wider symbol for interventionism and echoes, somewhat, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Realistically, this is Reichardt’s Fitzcowraldo (or Firstcowraldo).

Ultimately, though the cow brings great fortune to Cookie, it also sows the seeds of downfall and inevitable comeuppance. It is, as said before, a lovely symbol of artificial scarcity, and the scam of this. While you can easily find value in what was already there, this introduced rarity becomes hugely valuable. It is a manipulated market and it encourages our central pair to ride that wave, thinking it is helping them – it’s that darn American dream again. The consequences are telegraphed from the very beginning – watch the opening of the film after seeing the end and prepare to be devastated – but not in a way that feels rote or cliched. This uses a quirky and atypical metaphor to make very perceptive points about how inequality becomes ingrained in society, and how power is given to the wrong people. Our soft and gentle picture of masculinity ultimately wanted to make something for himself, to exercise his ability to fulfil his need (we learn early on that simply getting by here is hard, not because of the natural landscape but because of the parasitic competition that has come to prey off of the land). The problems come when class dynamics enter the scenario and when things become monetised. It is a wonderful portrait of how societies could go and how lands of opportunity are spoiled by tarnishing them with the imperialistic systems that newcomers bring with them.

Underneath all of this though, it is just an astoundingly beautiful film. Director of Photography Christopher Blauvelt captures uniformly stunning compositions. The 4:3 ratio is used to great effect, with complete beauty perfectly framed and evoking a classical cinematic language that the film is gently at odds with. Much like how Reichardt claimed the 4:3 ratio of Meek’s Cutoff was supposed to evoke the restrictive bonnets of women in the film’s time period, and thus present a restricted female gaze in every frame, restriction is used powerfully here. It comes back to the idea that we are getting a narrow view of a much wider land, or that the characters we are aligned to will always be limited by external factors. But the idea of never really having access to the wider picture, but always being given complete beauty, is very powerful. Most of the compositions foreground natural detail and are coupled with a calming, diegetic soundscape. This is a peaceful and wonderful film, in which the joy comes from being in the space and from being lulled by the deliberately gentle pacing. Conflict happens but the pacing doesn’t highlight it or prioritise it, again pushing the idea that a different way of life is possible and should have been pursued. We are presented with simple, effortless beauty. This is evoked through long shots, purposefully small performances and a sparse score (the music is brilliant but is another light touch). Always, in this film, we have the reality of things – and the reality of a land – and then we see divergent realities pushed onto it. The way the cinematic grammar feels at odds with rising drama and conflict is just a perfect way of prioritising a message, but is also anything but polemical.

This is a stunning film. It is a gentle masterpiece defined by quietly momentous moments (at one point, Toby Jones just moved his eyes and it was the most brilliant piece of acting – the filmmaking knows how to elevate the little details at every moment). Every inch of this film works together for an ambitious political and allegorical intent but it is also just a beautiful work of art. Reichardt continues to be a singular voice in cinema that makes films that operate with a different cinematic language, and that continue to astonish. First Cow is no exception to this and is one of the best examples of her brilliance, and of the brilliance of all of her collaborators.

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