“First Cow” (2020) Review

Dir. Kelly Reichardt; John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones
[4 out of 4 stars]

“This ain’t no place for cows. God would’ve put cows here if it was.”

 “Ah, it’s no place for white men either, then, huh?” 

First Cow (2020) begins along a river many Oregonians will recognize as the Columbia. Empty cargo boats pass by a rocky beach. A woman (Alia Shawkat) wanders about the late autumn woods, stopping when her dog begins digging. It’s a quiet, slow start to a quiet, slow film, and it only gets going 10 minutes in when the dog uncovers two skeletons, lying against each other in an intimate gesture – almost as if they fell asleep holding hands. 

Kelly Reichardt – who pulls triple duty here as director, writer, and editor – does not, however, set her gorgeous drama on the Sauvie Island of today. Instead, she jumps back two hundred years to the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, one of the last frontiers in North America. “History isn’t here yet,” says one of the new settlers. That isn’t exactly true, but it’s what the newcomers believed, and what history books often seem to tell us today. Reichardt cleverly pushes back on that idea, but in setting her film in the 1820s, she also uses it to begin her own myth-making in a heartwarming story of two men bound together by the frontier. The irony that cows and white men stayed a while and now dominate much of the Northwest’s image is not lost on her. 

When we meet the first half of the pair, his grubby hand is picking yellowish mushrooms off the leafy forest floor. Otis Figowitz, known as “Cookie” and played by John Magaro, is a cook for a group of fur trappers making their way west to Fort Tilikum (a Chinook word with no specified location). Just before their arrival, Cookie encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man similarly trying to make it on the frontier. A surprisingly close relationship develops between the two, catalyzed in part by Cookie’s pastry-making and the arrival of the area’s “first cow.” (As I learned in this film, cows are not native to Oregon.) King-Lu encourages Cookie to use the cow’s milk, but since the mythic bovine belongs to the antagonistic chief factor of the area (played brilliantly by Toby Jones), the pair begins to collect milk in the dead of night. Reichardt lets the narrative swell with suspense until the fateful night that leads to the two skeletons side-by-side. I won’t reveal how they get there. 

First Cow unfolds methodically, with no eye to the end of the story. Reichardt’s cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, favors long, static shots. Characters drift on and off screen; the camera is often placed on the ground, suggesting a nature documentary. Food, from the mushrooms Cookie scavenges to the delicious “oily cakes” he bakes for crowds of trappers, is captured in close-ups, taunting the hungry viewer. These are deceivingly simple shots. Pay attention to the way the camera straddles the boundaries of the human and the natural, bringing interior and exterior spaces together. There is, in fact, a continued juxtaposition of the harshness of frontier life with the pleasures of food and company that put me in mind of Scandinavian films – like Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987), or some of Ingmar Bergman’s more domestic scenes. 

In one early sequence, just after King-Lu invites Cookie to his small house in the woods, the camera traverses the borders of the shack. King-Lu leaves the house to build a fire and instead of following him, the camera remains on Cookie, who waits, apparently unsure what to do. We cut to a long shot, through the open door and window, of King-Lu chopping wood, then back to Cookie, who looks around and picks up a broom and begins sweeping. In one of the film’s most breathtaking shots – favorably reminiscent of the fire scene in Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) – we see Cookie inside, framed by the door, and King-Lu, a few yards away, framed by the window. This is an extraordinarily long sequence for the narrative content it provides, but Reichardt seems to trust her audience’s patience in a way few American directors do. 

What genre is First Cow? In a way, it’s a very quiet Western, a film about crime and retribution on the frontier, but the kind where few gunshots are fired and where there’s only one cow. In another, perhaps more meaningful, sense, it’s a romance. When Cookie returns to the house in the sequence I just described, he’s carrying a pot of flowers, which he neatly arranges on a shelf. King-Lu watches him and says, simply: “Looks better already.” The two are never explicitly shown to be lovers, but the film bears all the hallmarks of a romance. Their relationship, from the moment Cookie finds King-Lu naked and shivering in a bush, has an air of seduction. Long shots focusing on the subtle variations in emotion are paired with close-ups of their gazes. 

Cookie and King-Lu feel perfectly fitted for one another, testifying to the chemistry Magaro and Lee bring to the screen. Magaro plays Cookie as a quiet, shy man who seems out of place among the rough trappers. Contrasting the trappers’ drunken brawls, we see Cookie take a moment to help upright a salamander flipped onto its back. Skittish and protective, in his scenes with King-Lu, Cookie says little and seems to hesitate before each action, acting with the eyes rather than the mouth. He’s most gregarious around the cow; while milking her, Cookie reveals a tender side, speaking to her like a friend: “Sorry about your husband…It’s a terrible thing.” An orphan, alone for decades, Cookie has difficulty expressing himself at first, but King-Lu eventually urges him to consider his hopes and dreams. With some prodding, he opens up and admits that his dream is to open a hotel with an attached bakery. 

Lee’s King-Lu, on the other hand, is good-natured and talkative, and Reichardt gives him most of the film’s profound lines. He’s the pursuer in their relationship, and it’s his drive that first binds the two together and then bolsters their fledgling business. In one of the film’s most tongue-in-cheek moments, King-Lu plays off the trappers’ ignorance to invent the source of the pastries’ deliciousness. Unable to admit that they’ve been using milk – after all, there’s one cow in the territory – he says: “Secret ingredient. Ancient Chinese secret.” Lee’s performance thrives on these subtly mocking, ironic turns, but you also get the sense that it’s part of a game of chess: he’s laughing casually, but he also seems to be planning ahead. 

With King-Lu, Reichardt also has a spokesperson for what feels like a socio-economic critique of the American Dream. First Cow frequently questions the mythology of the West, pushing back on many of the ideas of “progress” we are sold. For those from the Pacific Northwest (like myself), the situation is familiar: British, American, and other settlers vying for control of a large chunk of land. The Northwest has often been seen in this sense as a symbol of the American Dream – land and gold to be found by anyone who seeks it. But here, it’s told with an eye for the inherent problems of that struggle. King-Lu points out that you need capital to start a farm, open a hotel, set up a business. “Men like us,” he tells Cookie, “we have to make our own way. We have to take what we can while the taking is good.” These lines feel a little on the nose at times, but they work because Lee delivers them without strain. 

Reichardt’s approach to race is a little more ambivalent. King-Lu, on the one hand, is likely one of the most well-developed Asian characters in a Western, ever. He’s also subject to racism, like when Cookie first meets him: “You speak good English…for an Indian.” But King-Lu is also, vaguely, a colonial figure. “I see something in this land I haven’t seen before,” he tells Cookie. “Pretty much everywhere has been touched by now. But this is still new.” King-Lu’s remark touches on both the progressivist model of history, in which “primitive” tribal communities are replaced by ports, forts, and “civilization,” as well as on the invasive colonial expansion that stretched to every corner of the world. He and Cookie are arguably part of that destructive cycle.

Reichardt doesn’t attempt a critique of the genocide of the indigenous population of Oregon, but she does lambast both progressivism and colonialism through Jones’s character. The supposedly all-powerful chief factor is contrasted with both King-Lu, who outwits him several times, and, in another subversively amusing scene, with the indigenous chief Totillicum (Gary Farmer). Sitting in a lavish parlor, Totillicum’s wife (Sabrina Morrison) interprets for Totillicum and the chief factor. Totillicum speaks for what feels like minutes, and the factor is forced to listen to what turns out to be a suggestion to eat beaver tail. There seems to be an inside joke between the couple: maybe Totillicum really does speak English, or maybe he’s saying something less savory than what she’s relaying. In any case, the two seem to undermine the chief factor’s power, revealing both his ignorance and impotence.

Most of the political implications of the film are fairly obvious. The chief factor is cruel and ridiculous, the trappers are racist and misogynist, the economy favors the rich and powerful, etc. What’s remarkable is how Reichardt makes these ideas stick with you without getting too preachy. I have probably thought about First Cow more in the week since watching it than any other film I’ve seen – there’s something about the silence that makes you focus and reflect on every little detail. 

Since most of First Cow was filmed within a half-hour of my childhood home, I’m a little biased when I say it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in recent years. But Reichardt’s film is successful not because of the landscape, but because the cinematography and setting perfectly reflect the interior, emotional narrative. It’s a slow film. We don’t get a dynamic shot for the first nine minutes. Many viewers may grow impatient with the long sequences of berry-picking and flowing rivers. But I encourage you to approach the film in the same mindset you would a hike (in the Columbia Gorge, or wherever): let yourself take in the beauty of the surroundings and remember that none of this belongs to you.

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