Imagine if art-house films were treated like major cinematic events. I suppose some are when it comes to crowd-pleasing pictures coming off of festival buzz or serving as the latest from popular non-mainstream directors. First Cow has a moment about a third of the way into the film where the cow finally arrives, and I felt like it was time for an applause break. It’s not quite Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, but the arrival of bovine in the distance signaled something in me that had already been clear – I was not only really into the unique and quiet frontier world being developed in this Kelly Reichardt film, I was happy to feel it a strong enough companion to this director’s previous work to the point of celebrating the introduction of this domesticated creature.
This deliberately paced picture has a way of absorbing a viewer who is ready to get a heavy dose of what a fairly lo-fi filmmaker can do to express her opinions on what it means to be American. It’s an interesting proposition, but with her second alternative western, it’s becoming a clear throughline. The challenges of frontier times were the focus of Meek’s Cutoff, while isolation and drifting along in life were some of the key elements of Certain Women and Wendy and Lucy. Old Joy also finds its way in connecting to First Cow, thanks to the location. With all of these films, however, it is clear Reichardt has a way of celebrating environments (Night Moves touches on this as well, albeit at a different angle), taking in nature at its rawest, and allowing characters to feel vulnerable.
The characters featured here are a couple of oddballs who form an unlikely friendship. John Magaro is “Cookie” Figowitz, a cook who has traveled west with a group of unimpressed fur trappers. He stumbles upon King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be on the run from Russians. The two make their own way to a new town. Around the same time, a milking cow is brought in by a wealthy landowner (a terrific Toby Jones). Cookie and King Lu soon decide they can sneak around to the cow at nights, and start a small business baking with her milk, and selling the tasty goods.
It’s not quite appropriate to call First Cow unpredictable, but the assembly of the film has a non-hurried pace reliant on character over the plot. Particularly in the first half, we are merely coming to understand who these people are, and what they are taking out of this untamed, yet beautiful Pacific Northwest environment. As a result, there’s a sense of wonder one can see in watching new developments in the story unfold. Sure, the actions of Cookie and King Lu speak to some lower-class version of manifest destiny or just plain greed, but there’s nothing in what we see in these two that suggests anything malicious.
Our acceptance of these characters is a triumph of performance, as both Magaro and Lee bring an effortlessness to their roles that make them believable, likable, and understandable. They are two people who have been led to this point in their lives by chance, and they go after an opportunity. Perhaps there’s more to them (King Lu remains vague about these Russians who are after him), but the bond they form quickly becomes vital to the developing journey. The two put focus on the potential for the biscuits and oily cakes they make for the local townsfolk. There are grand thoughts on what kind of business they could put together once they earn enough silver ingots to move to San Francisco.
All of this is made possible by a cow. The cow goes unnamed, and, beyond her docile nature, we are hardly shown reason to think of it as a bastion of good fortune or a harbinger of doom. Take what you will from the film, which opens with an ominous flash-forward to modern day where a random woman (Alia Shawkat) discovers a burial site. That in mind, is the quirkiness of how much Cookie respects his position as the one handling the utters of this innocent cow enough to suggest Reichardt wants the audience to have good faith in what this deliverer of fresh milk means?
While set in the 19th century, it’s hard not to connect this film to others from recent months set in contemporary times. The idea of separate classes doing what they feel makes the most sense, based on their station in life, can be complicated. It’s also universal. First Cow manages to be just as relevant as Us or newly-dubbed Best Picture winner Parasite in showing how people of a lower station have taken the knowledge they have and found a way to apply it toward getting ahead, putting one over on the higher class in the process. It’s handled in a more lighthearted way, at first, but it still speaks to the goals of those deemed outsiders by those in a seemingly stronger position.
Collecting a small fortune by taking advantage can, of course, only take these two so far. It’s a credit to First Cow’s filmmaking that we watch some ensuing drama take the form of actions that continue to feel natural, with suspense earned in a manner that once again found me at a loss for what to expect. Should worry be overtaking me, or is the continued discovery of what the land has to offer, due to the effort from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, enough to know things are going to work out the way that is intended when it comes to characters living in period?
For a film that is so simple and understated, First Cow knows how to hit at some interesting aspects of culture, American or otherwise. That said, it still feels entirely appropriate as a film specifically going after something rooted in the movement west. The film allows for actions both ambitious and tender, creating something of a profound experience. Having it all come down to the presence of a cow makes it all the more rewarding. It may not be sacred, but seeing that cow had me invested in a calming way.