First Cow (2019)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? I mean, a new Kelly Reichardt film!

Cast, crew, etc.


In 19th century Oregon, two atypical frontiersman cross paths; Cookie, a gentle introvert with a love of nature and cooking, and King Lu, an ambitious Chinese immigrant looking to make his fortune. They become friends, share a shack in the wilderness, and start making plans for the future. Then the head of the local civil administration imports a cow, the first seen in that part of the country, a slight seeming development that has far reaching consequences.

Cookie, tired of their bland diet, wants some of the cow’s milk for baking. Lacking the means to buy any, the two decide simply to steal some; the resulting ‘oily cakes’ are so good that they open a make shift stall and start selling them to the locals. Their success then brings them to the attention of the administrator, whose milk they are filching. You can tell things are not going to end well.

American independant film maker Kelly Reichardt’s latest shares much in common with her earlier work. This is another character study set in a spectacular natural location, featuring a pair of misfits drifting through their lives; it has similar thematic ideas to both ‘Old Joy’ and ‘Certain Women’, and a similar setting to ‘Meek’s Cuttoff’. The two principals have little agency, which is a reflection both of their personalities, and the society they live in; while they don’t have detailed plans for themselves, even if they did it would be hard to set them in motion. Regardless of their individual talents, the resources required to accomplish anything are (then as now) concentrated in the hands of a few.

Cookie, played with disarming naturalism by John Magaro, is a classic Reichardt character; he values small pleasures, craft, and the beauty of nature. Witness the brief early scene where he rights a lizard that has fallen on its back, and his careful approach to milking the cow, replete with reassuring conversation. This makes him entirely unsuited to the rugged environment he finds himself in, but rather than have this wear him down, it actually works the other way; with some fresh milk and a few simple ingrediants, he is able to show the tough characters around him a glimpse of a different world. At least for a moment.

A study in opposites

King Lu, played with reserved charisma by Orion Lee, is Cookie’s opposite in many respects; he is wilier, more forceful, more inclined to plan. Where Cookie sleeps rough outside, he has built a shelter, and where Cookie is happy to bake for the joy of it, he is the one who wants to monetise the output. The fact that this eventually leads to a clash with the local gentry is a classic American parable; US history is full of examples of talented outsiders, whose creativity is eventually exploited by people with money. There is a telling scene where Cookie agonises over baking a Clarfoutis for his new patron, which is delivered and then barely even glanced at.

The film exmaines the unfairness underlying these transactions. The cow’s owner has purchased it to impress other people in his social circle with its ability to provide fresh milk; beyond that, and bragging about its status as the ‘first cow’, he does not take much interest in it. Meanwhile Cookie, who values the cow both as a beautiful living creature, and as a means to create, is denied access to it. It’s not much of a leap from there, to thinking about the 1% of modern society, who control 99% of the wealth.

The cow is a rich symbol, also representing the end of frontier life, and the advance of colonialism. King Lu is motivated to keep stealing milk, even as it gets riskier, as soon, he says, there will be another cow, and another, and then many. The opportunity they have to utilise the first one is unique, and the window closing. Modernism’s advance will be swift, and the life they know will soon be swept away. Starting the film in the present day also shows what this development will eventually lead to; a modern cargo ship, chugging down the same river these pioneers lived alongside, two hundred years of history in an instant.

The film’s different strands eventually lead to tragedy, as you feel they must. Cookie and King Lu are characters born under a bad sign. However they strive to get control of their fate, they both have too many obstacles to overcome; a classic movie concept. But at least they found each other, and enjoyed a short period of happiness; a concept perfectly summed up by the film’s precis:

‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.’ – William Blake

With rich performances, impeccable production design, lush visuals, and a sombre tone that still manages, somehow, to seem hopeful, this is a film that conjures complex ideas and themes from an unobtrusive, minimalist approach. An impressive achievement. My favourite film of the year to date.

Seen via the MIFF 2020 online platform.

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