First Cow November 9, 2020
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
he first thing we see in First Cow, the new movie from writer-director Kelly Reichardt, is a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in the Oregon wilderness. She spots something poking out of the dirt a few steps away; it stops her in her tracks. Curious, she moves toward it, starts digging and — what do you know – she’s unearthed something. It’s a couple of skeletons resting peacefully side by side. Were they
lovers? And how did they end up here? First Cow will give us answers; almost the whole movie — which jumps from that present-day discovery all the way back to the 1820s — revolves around them. These answers and their decorative circumstances, we find out, are marginalia to a larger history writ large. We think about how many similar stories have gone untold and will stay that way. The young woman could have just as easily turned the other cheek.
The simple reply is that these are the remains of Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a taciturn Jewish baker who dreamed of someday opening a bakery or a hotel — maybe an admixture of both, hopefully based in San Francisco — and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a more free-spoken Chinese immigrant who came to America looking for gold. These men, we learn, were not lovers but fast friends. But in First Cow their friendship is wrought so tenderly by Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond (he wrote the book the movie is based on) that it touches us as much as we might expect a finely rendered cinematic romance to.
Like all of Reichardt’s previous movies, the narrative of First Cow unravels slowly and patiently. Scenes teem with quiet. But, typical for the filmmaker, slowness and patience never devolves into boredom. She has a way of transfixing the viewer, using space — here protracted by the vastness of the film’s setting — as further means to pull us in. At its core, First Cow is a stirring — even sweet — drama about friendship, made even more so because that friendship functions as such a respite for both the men changed by it. You’re so moved by the film as it unspools that you almost don’t notice that, under the control of a filmmaker less emotionally discerning than Reichardt, it might be a more straightforward survival thriller. (Funny, because, in an interview with Vox, Reichardt said that to her eye, First Cow is a heist movie — even a caper film.)
When Cookie and King-Lu first meet, the former is working thanklessly for a pugnacious group of fur-trappers that seems to resent him. The latter, discovered hiding in the bushes by Cookie, is on the run, wanted by a cadre of Russian trappers because he killed one of their own to avenge the friend with whom he came to America. Cookie and King-Lu have a pleasant bond upon their first meeting but go their separate ways; Cookie helps King-Lu get to a place of safety under the noses of his traveling convoy. A little while later, they serendipitously reunite at a bar where all the patrons except for them revel in their rowdiness.
Suddenly, Cookie and King-Lu are business partners and roommates. (King-Lu lives in a shack in a clearing near town.) A wealthy English entrepreneur, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has on his property America’s very first milk cow (the titular one!); her arrival is monumentally marked by a majestic tableau of her traveling on a barge floating over a placid river. King-Lu nudges Cookie to steal some of her milk to make something (he comes up with biscuits), which are then sold to much popularity at the local market.
The treats quickly get to be known colloquially as “oily cakes”; it’s the hot commodity at the market at which they debut — the beloved food that when just mentioned can cause salivation. “Give me another!” an early customer exclaims after taking just a bite. It’s expected from the outset that Cookie and King-Lu’s entrepreneurial success story will be short-lived, given the precariousness that comes with their deception. Though neither quite anticipates that it will be as short-lived as it winds up being: it’s not long before Factor hears of the business and then tries and loves its prized concoction. He doesn’t know how these oily cakes got to be so good. How long before he knows their secret ingredient?
he prologue of First Cow tacitly warns us that things aren’t going to go very well for its leads; it’s probably unlikely that Cookie will realize his dreamed-about San Francisco sojourn. The brevity of the lives of its leads of course means that a sense of tragedy is built into First Cow. But that brevity also accentuates a sad beauty that sticks with us. This friendship might not have lasted long, but when it was there, it meant
everything. There’s a somber seductiveness to the idea of a short life that had something in it that was really meaningful — worth living for — rather than a long life lived with no direct equivalent.
Magaro’s and Lee’s performances are perfectly poignant, lucidly showing us how the relationship between their characters could gradually shift from predominantly professional to something more commiserative and caring. As pointed out by the critic Brianna Zigler, the kindness Cookie and King-Lu offer to each other feels almost radical against its setting. In America, where an individualistic, dog-eat-dog ethos is normalized (and has hardly changed) as a way to find success, it’s profound that these characters can find even a semblance of success under capitalism without resorting to the same level of cruelty as their peers; something that also, it could be argued, leads them to their dooms.
First Cow almost seems to romanticize frontier life — there’s a dreaminess to the film — though Reichardt and Raymond don’t forgo historical accuracy (the feature is open about the ugliness of colonialism, racism, and the various brutalities of the era) for something more pastoral. It does, though, have a rather hopeful outlook on, pretty ambitiously, existence in general, which in less-capable hands could seem saccharine but, here, is surprisingly affecting. Nihilists are fundamentally right, but First Cow functions as an optimistic retort to their fatalism. Maybe life is meaningless when contemplating the inexorable chugging-along of time. But it’s hard to deny that there’s something powerful about the fact that we can make someone’s life mean something during our short lives and vice versa. A