By Clinton Krute in the March-April 2020 Issue
Kelly Reichardt’s deceptively modest epic First Cow opens with a wide, static shot of a barge, heavy with consumer goods, pushing down the Columbia River. As the ship moves across the screen, the contrast between the rust, paint, and metal, and the surrounding wilderness, a network of leafless, winter branches skirting the wide water, becomes more and more pronounced. The endlessly complex ecosystem is, for the strangely inhuman vessel, a commercial shipping route, nothing more nor less. Like the story that follows, this shot is deceptively straightforward, gesturing toward one of the themes—nature vs. society, with the human being somewhere in-between—that the filmmaker has been worrying since her 1994 debut, River of Grass, itself set in the liminal landscape of the Florida Everglades. With First Cow, Reichardt has managed to weave together the various concerns—social, philosophical, economic, and cinematic—that have haunted her films to date, producing a work of remarkable beauty and startling complexity.
First Cow tells the story of two men living on the margins of frontier-era Oregon—the very limit of American civilization—who become first friends and then business partners. Following a bravura opening scene—featuring a young woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog, a nod to 2008’s Wendy and Lucy—Reichardt rewinds from the present day to the early 19th century. As the camera floats through the dense brush of the Pacific rainforest, a man dressed in the tattered rags of a trapper gently plucks chanterelles from the underbrush. It’s a bucolic scene, with soft harp music drifting on the soundtrack, the forest portrayed as a magical, innocent place. The man, a cook named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), is completely at ease in this green world, at one point carefully righting an overturned newt, setting the creature back on its way. Cookie, as we come to learn, is interested not in merely exploiting nature for its “comestibles” (as one character puts it later) but also in existing as one small part of the ecosystem. His integration—down to his decomposing clothes—in that world seems complete, until he suddenly hears a twig snap underfoot nearby and runs in a panic back to camp, where he rejoins a crew of rough-looking trappers.
Later that night, foraging again, the wandering cook suddenly finds himself face-to-face with a naked man, shivering in the ferns. Cookie, child of nature, immediately feeds and shelters the man, a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee) who is on the run after a violent act of self-defense. After sleeping in Cookie’s tent, hidden from his pursuers, King disappears back into the forest. This act of kindness on Cookie’s part is returned later in the film, when the two are reunited at a remote mud-caked trading post. King invites his new friend back to his small shack for a drink, and in a beautiful scene punctuated by Cookie brightening up the tiny place with an impromptu flower arrangement, the two immediately settle into a domestic routine. With no questions asked, the two become a platonic (but maybe not?) couple, spending their days darning socks, fishing, trapping squirrels, and chatting about their plans for the future. When the Chief Factor, the head of the local trading company (played as a somehow sympathetic stuffed shirt by Toby Jones), acquires the first cow in the region, the entrepreneurial King coerces Cookie into a risky scheme to bake and sell cakes using stolen milk.
Reichardt and longtime co-writer Jonathan Raymond (whose 2004 novel The Half-Life provides the source material for First Cow) manage to pack each scene with allegorical significance while still somehow maintaining a lightness of touch and a sense of humor. Raymond’s novel is far more sweeping in scope, jumping back and forth between the 1820s and a story set in the 1980s. Magaro’s performance is comparably layered: though he seems at first to be a naïf and a pushover, possibly even not all there, the character slowly reveals depths of awareness and feeling. He is a gentle but dedicated artist, collecting berries and shelling nuts for his baking project, as King, an inveterate hustler, reels off assorted business schemes. King explains: “It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle. No way for a poor man to start. You need capital . . . or a crime.” He is not only a schemer but also a great talker: he’s able to cut deals in multiple tongues, at one point making potlatch with an indigenous man using a mishmash of languages. Where Cookie’s art is based on flour, sugar, and milk, King is a dealmaker, fluently translating words into cash and services. As Wallace Stevens wrote, “Money is a kind of poetry.”
DP Christopher Blauvelt, who has worked with Reichardt since 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, shoots the natural world in a way that fully integrates the characters into the setting. The camerawork—Blauvelt frequently frames shots through banks of fern and masses of branches, from low angles—reminded me of Lee Friedlander’s deep-focus black-and-white photos of forest landscapes and trees, infinitely intricate galaxies of twigs and boughs. In these shots, Cookie and King Lu become a part of the forest, dwelling within the landscape, as they move through dense, pathless woods and meadows. Like the newt that Cookie rescues, or the owl that watches over the pair as they implement their scheme, the men are as at ease with the wilderness as they are with each other. Their friendship, the society that these two men of wildly different racial and cultural backgrounds form so naturally, is almost Whitmanesque, and certainly Thoreauvian: “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” In a touch that could come directly from Walden (whose opening chapter is titled “Economy”), they “bank” their earnings from their baked goods in the hollow of a tree near their one-room cabin.
Midway through the film, King Lu declares: “History isn’t here yet. We got here early. Maybe this time we can be ready for it when it gets here.” Of course, as we know, history is written by the winners, and Reichardt’s extraordinary film tells a sensitive and clear-eyed story about the collision of that history, writ large, with the experiences—personal and collective—of those left out of the official tally. The film’s nuanced portrayal of indigenous people speaks to this as well: in one very funny scene at the Chief Factor’s house, a local chief explains at length (through a translator) how surprised he is that white men don’t eat more beaver tail, the most delicious part of the animal, leaving them to rot instead—and in so doing, brushes aside an opportunity to criticize the colonial trappers for their wanton destruction. Instead of the expected righteous indignation, the chief is, like the Chief Factor, an epicurean, lamenting the white man’s lack of good taste. The indigenous people are, like Cookie and King, attempting to navigate a rapidly changing world, their leaders no less susceptible to human foibles.
This notion of history as something external, something that happens to us, rather than something made or directed by humans, is central to the film’s almost allegorical, and certainly polemical, worldview. First Cow, like many of the filmmaker’s features (with the notable exception of River of Grass), is set in the Pacific Northwest—this time in the early 19th century, in and around Portland, Oregon, only recently prodded into being by the bustling foreign market for beaver hats. In the film, the city is still just a fort on the frontier of civilization, a hub for fur trappers and gold miners seeking fortune, surrounded by a few cobbled-together huts peopled by a collection of grimy characters worthy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller—including, in a nod to Altman’s western, the late René Auberjonois as an old kook with a pet crow, and a haggard-looking Stephen Malkmus as a wobbly fiddler sawing away at Portland legend Michael Hurley’s “Hog of the Forsaken.” The society described by Reichardt is busy being born, and is somewhere between the pastoral and the capitalist. Cookie and King Lu’s small, thriving (and theft-based) baking business—an attempt to take the only road offered by this burgeoning capitalist society—is predictably crushed like a bug when the two inconvenience the Chief Factor by transgressing the only recently developed code of property rights.
First Cow opens with an epigraph from closet dialectician William Blake (another 19th-century egalitarian), from Proverbs of Hell, in part a meditation on the forces unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Less than 70 years later, and not long after the events of First Cow, another revolutionary writer, Karl Marx, expressed a related thought in the introduction to the Grundrisse: “The farther we go back into history, the more the individual and, therefore, the producing individual seems to depend on and belong to a larger whole: at first it is, quite naturally, the family and the clan, which is but an enlarged family; later on, it is the community growing up in its different forms out of the clash and the amalgamation of clans. It is only in the 18th century, in ‘civil society,’ that the different forms of social union confront the individual as a mere means to his private ends, as an external necessity.” This “civil society”—in particular the ruthless form of early capitalism represented by the shells, buttons, and company scrip circulating throughout the film—conspires to domesticate and control production.
In the same essay, Marx writes that “Man is in the most literal sense of the word a zoon politikon, not only a social animal, but an animal which can develop into an individual only in society.” Cookie and King Lu, whose personal and economic partnership has allowed them to briefly come into their own, are ultimately brought to heel by their inability—or unwillingness—to play by the rules of this brutal new system. An image near the end of the film seems to sum up their fate: the cow, once free to roam the meadow, is now tightly fenced in and guarded after the theft is discovered. To Cookie, the cow is a friend and partner, a being to be empathized with, as he gently caresses her and whispers reassurances about the quality of her milk. For the Chief Factor, she is merely property, to be both exploited and zealously guarded from exploitation by others. For one, success is collective, and for the other, the world is a zero-sum game. With typically understated, formal grace, Reichardt weaves together the disparate themes of her filmography into this critique of the root-and-branch rot of unfettered capitalism. That it’s delivered in the form of a profoundly humane and moving story of friendship, ringing with the simple truth of folktale, makes that critique all the more powerful.