The cow of First Cow is at once the movie’s most random element and its reason for being.
Set in Oregon in the early 1800s, Kelly Reichardt’s mesmerizingly muted drama chronicles the creeping advance of European civilization into the Pacific Northwest—fur trappers, soldiers, and eventually a cow, once things have been duly subdued to allow for such domesticated creatures. Sticking out like a sore thumb—never more so than when it arrives placidly floating downriver on a raft—the cow is another symptom, if a strange one, of manifest destiny. But as the movie proceeds, it also becomes a symbol for a more personal sort of greed.
To Cookie (John Magaro), who has just returned from working as a cook for a party of fur trappers, the cow represents possibility: with its milk, otherwise unavailable in these parts, he could make delicious, donut-like “oily cakes.” Soft-spoken and demure, Cookie only dreams of such a thing, but King Lu (Orion Lee)—a Chinese immigrant Cookie befriends—sees opportunity. And so he suggests a business plan: they furtively milk the cow—which is owned by the commander (Toby Jones) of the nearby military fort—under the cover of night, make the cakes, and sell them in the market the next day. Cookie agrees and business booms, with the commander as their best customer.
As she did with her masterpiece, Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt reconstructs history out of tactile touches and sensory details. (Like Meek’s, First Cow is co-written with Jonathan Raymond, this time adapting his own novel.) There is a light score, by William Tyler, but the soundscape is mostly defined by the squelching of mud and the squealing of pigs. Employing a nearly square, 4:3 aspect ratio, Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt eschew grand landscapes, preferring to let their camera sit amidst the everyday weeds. There is really only one ostentatious shot in the movie—when a concussed Cookie opens his bleary eyes to see a Native-American man performing ceremonial movements against a backdrop of windswept trees—but that image seems to have dropped in from another reality, as if it was a vision. In First Cow, history is at once engrossing and mundane.
At its center are two characters who could be described in the same way. A man among Men (especially the fur trappers and soldiers who always seem to be scuffling just outside the frame), Cookie appears to be too gentle for this new world. Although there are almost no women in the film, in Magaro’s nurturing performance and the narrative itself we get a distinctly “feminine” presence. While the trappers kill and clamor, Cookie gathers mushrooms, tends to supplies, and prepares their meals. Back at the the fort in a makeshift saloon, Cookie is told to keep an eye on a baby in a basket when a fight breaks out. After King Lu welcomes him to his hut in the woods, he’s invited to “make yourself easy.” For Cookie, this means sweeping the floor, shaking out a pelt that serves as a rug, and gathering a wispy bouquet of flowers.
Reichardt reconstructs history out of tactile touches and sensory details.
In some ways, King Lu seems equally out of place—perhaps even more so, considering he doesn’t have the advantage of being white. Yet Lee gives the character a distinct serenity, even amidst threatening surroundings, so that it feels as if he’s both a participant and observer in his own story. A traveler who has seen (and survived) much, he tells Cookie, “I believe different things in different places.” His plan for the oily cakes is at once practical and existential, a way to survive but also a way to define who he is: a businessman.
Of course, he’s somewhat of a shady businessman, to Cookie’s quiet chagrin. Though perhaps he’s less of a thief than Jones’ commander, whose power over this patch of wilderness has come from plunder of another kind. First Cow could be read as a colonialist critique or a more contemporary-minded exercise in economic theory (“capitalism cakes”), but it might be better to paint the picture simply as a parable. At different points in the movie the Oregon Territory is described as a “land of abundance” and a “land of riches.” Nearly everyone we meet has come to exploit that, and in doing so they end up exploiting each other. Never underestimate what people will do for a beaver hat, a pail of milk, or a warm oily cake.