As our country struggles with its foundational mythology, we are faced with the question of how the story would be framed if it were written by those whose names are lost to history yet participated in its creation. Though First Cow is not made with a didactic tone, it asks us to consider vital questions as we reconcile with our national identity. How many dreams have gone unrealized due to a lack of capital or luck? How many successful people built empires on awful crimes that went undiscovered or unpunished? How many paid the ultimate price for small infractions? There is no healing in First Cow, it is a plea for us to reorient our empathy, and to meditate on historical wrongs that appear buried yet remain very much with us.
First Cow was co-written, directed, and edited by Kelly Reichardt with (her frequent writing partner) Jonathan Raymond, on whose novel it was based. The story follows “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) as two unlikely friends attempting to break free from their station in the Oregon Territory. It’s an inhospitable and lawless setting, where people take as much as they want from the land and seem to get ahead, so the pair steal milk from the cow of a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones), and with Cookie’s exceptional baking skills, they create a small sensation with baked goods.
People have used the term “slow cinema” to describe Reichardt’s film and that’s not a slight, it’s mostly due to her naturalistic pacing. Yet, every moment of First Cow is filled with emotions, often contrasting ones. As Cookie milks the cow, we know this could cost him and his friend their lives, yet Reichardt focuses on his bond with the cow. This transgression allows us to fill the moment with our feelings: We hope he will succeed, dreading that he won’t, all while he makes the cow feel like it’s the most important being on earth. He milks with love, he bakes with love, he shares his gift and dreams of a better future, and the film carries the same tone throughout. Meanwhile, we are the ones who see the proverbial time bomb. Reichardt trusts the audience’s intellect as much as King Lu trusts Cookie and as much as Cookie trusts the cow.
First Cow is also the story of friendship between Cookie and King Lu. They meet on the way to Oregon as Cookie travels with fur trappers and King Lu flees for his life after killing a man. Neither attempts to game the other, and acts of kindness with no expectation of reward are reciprocated. Cookie can’t seem to harm anything; he can’t bring himself to hunt, even recoiling when handed trapped squirrels to eat. King Lu’s circumstances have been different, but he does not define himself by past actions that were committed out of necessity. It’s a true partnership, with no leverage, no schemes, and no deception between two men who want the same thing.
The film has a brief prologue set in the present day, where a young woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog discover two complete skeletons just below the surface, meaning the bodies were probably left in the open air, never fully buried. They appear intact and neatly placed, but there is no marker. Who are they, and why did they die? This question lingers throughout the film, as we wait for the story to reveal the series of events that lead to that discovery two centuries later.
The politics of First Cow are inherent in its filmmaking. The prologue brings our attention to forgotten history, and the narrative imagines unrealized greatness that was intentionally quashed, either because it overstepped artificial boundaries created by powerful men, or because the friends were not ruthless enough in pursuing it. Cookie and King Lu rely on nature, and want to help people they don’t know. Chief Factor (Jones) tries to own nature, measuring the worth of a beaver population against its fashion value in Paris and China. He owns the cow, but he does not respect the animal. Though he enjoys Cookie’s use of her milk (of which he is unaware), he has no idea how to use it. These are the two paths America could take, and instead of a foundation of helping people and relying on nature, we chose to depopulate wildlife for fashion and food, and flatten forests to farm too much livestock. Shawkat’s character may not realize it, but that is the history she’s discovered.
First Cow/ PG-13, 122 minutes/ Streaming (Amazon Prime)