Kelly Reichardt has been directing western-inspired tales for pretty much her entire career. Her breakthrough, 2005’s Old Joy, brought audiences to Oregon for a tale of friendship and loss between two old pals during a camping weekend in the Cascades. Fifteen years later, Reichardt has returned to the lavishly lush emerald woods of the Pacific Northwest with another tale of a bond between two men. First Cow, which premiered at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, finds the director working in familiar territory, but expanding her talents even further as she turns her delicate yet studious eye to envision an intersectional critique of capitalism.
1820s Oregon Territory. The land is an untapped well of riches, bountiful in furs and fish. Rumors of gold lie beyond the borders of the local trading post. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a cook for a band of squabbling furriers. By chance, one night he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), an eloquent Chinese man on the run from bloodthirsty Russians. Cookie hides him and clothes him until they get to the trading post, where Lu slips away undetected. Cookie takes his money from the furriers, detaches himself from them, and runs into Lu again. It turns out the Russians have decided to head back home, and so Lu invites Cookie to stay in his cabin. This turn of events solidifies a tight bond between the two men. One could even happily make the argument that it’s a relationship stronger than mere friendship—Lu chops wood outside for the fireplace while Cookie sweeps the floor and adds flowers to an empty vase. Hell, there’s even two dead squirrels for dinner on the table positioned as if one was topping the other. Gays everywhere will be smirking in their seats.
Cookie and Lu share their ambitions and past experiences, and both share a common goal of striking it rich. Cookie dreams of opening a hotel or a bakery, so Lu decides to push the two towards achieving that goal. The only problem? There’s no cows in the Northwest—no milk, no baked goods. That is, until the local effeminate businessman (a sniveling Toby Jones) has a sow delivered to his elegant home nearby (the cow is played by an adorable bovine named Eve, and she arrives into the film with all the regality and commanding presence of an A-list popstar). “There’s no way for a poor man to start,” Lu notes. With the cow’s arrival, the two hatch a plan: Cookie will milk the cow at night while Lu watches out for the cow’s owner. They’ll use the milk to bake delicious oily cakes and other goodies to sell to the weary trading post residents, who pine for a taste of civilization. As the money piles up, the chances they get caught become higher and higher.
Reichardt reflects on the tumultuous present state of the country by taking us back to the burgeoning days of the Northwest, when civilization and economics were still burgeoning. She weaves a complete tapestry of life by bucking all stereotypes of the region’s history. The native peoples speak in their own tongue without subtitles; a white man points out that white people don’t belong in Oregon. It’s electrifying intersectionality that should be normal in American cinema, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go. Capitalism is not let off the hook either in First Cow: the fact that the two poor companions have to commit a crime to earn their fortune is highlighted, underlined, and written in all caps. There is no truly ethical way to earn a massive sum of money under capitalism, and Reichardt reminds us of that time and time again, though she does it with a subtle hand. For those spurned by the “we live in a society” shrieks of Joker and the enthusiastic witticisms of Knives Out, First Cow might prove to be more your speed. It’s an excellent moo-vie; 2020’s first masterwork.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.