First Cow

First Cow (2019)

First Cow first published by Movies On Weekends

“It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle,” says King-Lu (Orion Lee) in Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow. “No way for a poor man to start. You need capital. Or you need some kind of miracle… Or a crime.”

It is the early nineteenth century, not that far removed in time or place from Reichardt’s previous Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and King-Lu is a young Chinese man who has travelled the world and ended up prospecting for gold in Oregon Territory. He is also himself no stranger to crime. When he first meets his addressee, the chef Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), King-Lu is naked and starving on the trail, in flight from a group of Russians whose friend he shot dead after his own friend was murdered by them on a charge of theft. In a film with an opening text quote from William Blake which announces friendship as its principal theme, King-Lu and Cookie fast become friends, drawn together by their unusually soft-spoken courtesy in a world of loud masculine bluster, and by a shared ambition to improve their station and to realise the American dream.  

Here, however, the American dream has already been stopped dead in its tracks. We know this because First Cow opens in the present day, as a woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog by a river (that most Huckleberry Finn-esque of locales) chances upon a pair of skeletons buried alongside one another – and so from the outset we suspect that all King-Lu and Cookie’s plans to raise some capital in Oregon for opening a hotel in San Francisco are likely, in the end, to be cut short and to come to nought. So this is a story of the American dream turned sour, and of a system that works against the mobility of the poor, the marginalised and the unsupported – a story that is very much about today’s United States as well as its past. After all, those opening images of a woman with her dog inevitable evoke Wendy and Lucy (2008), Reichardt’s earlier tale of indigence and itinerancy in contemporary America. It is as though we are being shown a direct line between the archaeology unearthed by this woman and the present state of a nation where the gap between rich and poor has if anything become ever wider since the pioneering days. 

As both King-Lu’s words, and the film’s very title, suggest, First Cow is a film of beginnings and origins. “This is a land of riches,” King-Lu tells Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it, we can take it on our own terms.” Where King-Lu sees only opportunity in this wilderness, he knows that getting started will not be easy – and that they are laying foundations and templates for the nation’s forward momentum. This pair decides to start an enterprise together selling cakes at the local Fort, and while they lack a financial base or an investor, they have Cookie’s skills as a chef (learnt from being indentured servant to a baker in Boston), and illicit access to a precious resource. For the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy and powerful trader living in the settlement’s only proper house not far from King-Lu’s rudimentary shack, has imported the first cow to the territory, in the hope of having fresh milk for his tea (a desire that sees him characterised ‘a proper lady’ by his men) and recreating something of his native England in this uncivilised new world. Every night, Cookie secretly milks the cow (with King-Lu on lookout), providing the ‘secret ingredient’ that makes their ‘oily cakes’ sell like, well, hotcakes. Taking full advantage of this ‘window’ for profit when no potential competitor yet has a supply of milk, they then hide the accumulating revenues in the literal ‘branch’ of their ‘bank’ (a cottonwood tree) – an early model for a financial sector that would soon be spreading its roots all over America. Meanwhile the Chief Factor’s native servant (Mitchell Saddleback) plays in his bed with a handheld wooden toy that anticipates modern video games on a smart phone.

Adapted very loosely by Reichardt and her regular co-writer Jon Raymond from his novel The Half Life (2004), First Cow is a western of sorts, but carefully sets itself apart from other entries in this codified genre. It is a cowboy film with only one cow, and an oater whose two main characters do not tote guns or seek fights, and which elides all acts of violence, keeping them strictly off-screen. It affords its Native-American characters (one played by Lily Gladstone, familiar from Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016) a rounded dimensionality – and humour – that others in the film would deny them or fail to understand (only King-Lu seems to have made any effort to learn the native language). A desperate leap over a cliff into the water below evokes George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), even if our boys are thieves of an entirely non-vicious kind, and only one of them in fact jumps. Without ever going beyond homosocial bromance, the close relationship between Cookie and King-Lu recalls Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), and leaves them sleeping together for eternity.

Meanwhile, as the tenets of manifest destiny are replaced with an altogether different kind of fatalism, the sense of doom that pervades the film shows the early days of an America where any attempt at redistribution is swiftly punished, so that these two friends’ misadventures in small trade map out a long future of economic inequality that has never ended – much as their own story, with its outcome known from the start, is never quite brought to a finish. The viewer is left to connect the dots and close the circle – between these characters’ first fugitive encounter and their final resting place, and between a half-buried history and the ‘progress’ of the present – in determining how they got there, and how we got here. Reichardt has crafted a tender, aching puzzle, set in a world (and a genre) more typically dominated by rugged individualism and aggressive male drives, but here feminised by the warm embrace of friendship.  

strap: Kelly Reichardt’s entrepreneurial oater/American origin story feminises the wild west through the warm embrace of friendship

Anton Bitel