First Cow (2020)
Written by Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
In all of Kelly Reichardt’s films, and especially in First Cow, she makes the audience contemplate moments & the stillness of life. This view of the world was especially prevalent in the 19th century when this film takes place. There was a lot of time spent sitting and mending clothes and equipment, and so you found comfort in the silence. This quiet space likely meant peace as you weren’t struggling, just keeping things put together so that you could continue to survive. If you have been following social distancing lately, there’s a chance you have experienced these moments, but more likely, you, like myself, have filled that space with the chaos of the news and social media.
In the present day, a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walks her dog and discovers a partially buried skull. After some work digging, she finds two skeletons lying side by side. The story transitions back to the late 1800s, where we follow Cookie Figowitz, a chef traveling with fur trappers through the Oregon territory. One night, Cookie finds King-Liu, a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a man. Cookie hides King and helps him get further away from his pursuers, but they part ways. Cookie ends up an outpost where he is paid and left to his own devices as the party splits.
Cookie happens to be reunited with King, and they strike up a friendship, which becomes something more. Chief Factor (Toby Jones) is the wealthiest man in the region, and the news gets out that he has brought the first cow to the territory. Cookie dreams of what he could do with that milk, and so King helps him steal a bucket in the dark of the night. The cakes the young cook produces are so good that King posits they could sell these in the outpost and make a good chunk of money. Cookie worries about what will happen when they figure out where the milk came from.
Reichardt manages to do so many beautiful things in First Cow in a manner that feels so effortless. I was immediately struck by how diverse the casting is in the film without feeling like the director is pointing it out. What she’s doing is presenting a more accurate portrayal of the Pacific Northwest’s melting pot than we see in most popular media. There are white faces, but also many prevalent Native American ones as well as Asian and Black. There’s a sense of egalitarianism inasmuch as everyone, save a couple of people, are struggling to crawl out of the same hole. Chief Factor is the only person living in comfort, and his home feels so out of place in the rest of the rugged, ramshackle setting. Reichardt manages to drop in other details that stretch out preconceptions about this period: a large frontiersman type carrying around his infant son in a basket, Chief Factor’s Native American wife entertaining her family in the large house, an interracial gay romance between our leads. Nothing ever feels out of place, these feel like the real untold details of the past.
There’s nothing epic about this story, and that is another refreshing change. I think First Cow would make one hell of a double feature with The Revenant to display how different the portrait of this time & place can be in media. There are dangerous men about, and many times our characters feel as if they are in peril. Reichardt finds a way to have Cookie and King’s lives threatened without needing a suspenseful musical score or quick camera movements. I can’t remember too many pans of the camera, slow or otherwise. Often she uses cuts between shots without ever leaning into suspenseful reveals. The audience feels the tension of Cookie as he worries about getting caught but is never manipulated into worry.
Ultimately, characters are more important than conflict & plot beats in First Cow. We are given shots seemingly disconnected from the greater story, but that exist to build the world’s atmosphere & flavor. The movie is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio (see First Reformed, A Ghost Story), and that helps to create the feeling of intimacy that the picture hangs on. We get shots of ingredients being harvested and food being made that linger and comfort us. Cookie & King evoke the “rugged individualism” mentality but by emphasizing nothing is ever really accomplished by oneself. Their ultimate fate is the product of resource-hogging capitalism and the violence used to keep valuable, essential resources away from people. Reichardt quotes William Blake at the start of the film with the line “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” When you understand what that means in the context of this story, it is an illuminating moment.