Film Review – First Cow
First Cow (2019) plays like sleight of hand. At first, we see the methodical pacing and gradual plot and think that it doesn’t have much to say. But as we step away and go over the themes and character dynamics do we truly realize how substantial it is. Directed by Kelly Reichardt (who co-wrote with Jonathan Raymond, adapting his novel), the beauty in the film lies in the details – how everything exists in a subtle yet intricate balance. It’s a story about man’s relationship with nature, man’s relationship with man, and man’s relationship with self.
Cookie (John Magaro) is a quiet person but a skilled cook. We find him joined with a group of fur trappers making their way to an outpost in the late 19th century Oregon territory. One night, Cookie stumbles across King-Lu (Orion Lee) a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a Russian man. In a lesser film, King-Lu’s loyalties would quickly be called into question. But Reichardt and Raymond have other plans in mind. Instead of turning against him, Cookie helps King-Lu. He takes him in and helps him escape. The two meet again at the outpost, and in an act of gratitude King-Lu invites Cookie to stay in his shack.
The relationship between Cookie and King-Lu acts as the main foundation of the narrative. Although the two come from different backgrounds, they do share a commonality of being an outsider in their current surroundings. Reichardt and Raymond skip past the culture clash traps and present the two on an equal level. Cookie and King-Lu form a friendship, and in quieter moments share their hopes and ambitions, what they went through in the past and what they look forward to in the future. They’re both trying to make their way in a country still trying to define itself (and in many ways still is).
Capitalism works as a driving theme – how it can build a person up or tear them down. Nearly every character is trying to survive one way or another. Cookie dreams of establishing his own business and King-Lu is always thinking up a scheme to strike it rich. But all these ambitions are contrasted against the reality of their world. Many of the characters live in near squalor, the outpost nothing more than a few dingy buildings and tents. Most seem on the brink of desperation, or barely holding on to what they have. It’s also not an accident that we see a number of Native peoples in the background, a constant reminder of how “The American Dream” was not without its share of cruelty.
An opportunity presents itself to Cookie and King-Lu when a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) brings his prized cow to the fort. The milk the cow produces is a key ingredient for Cookie to make oily cakes, which then could be sold for money or bartered for goods. The two devise a plan where they sneak onto the landowner’s property in the cover of night and milk the cow. The plan works – handsomely. Soon, they are selling oily cakes throughout the fort faster than they could make it. Their food becomes so well known throughout the community that none other than the landowner himself shows up wanting to take a sample.
Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography shoots at a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, making the screen closer to a square shape. But the smaller visual space doesn’t dissipate the richness of the textures. Almost from the beginning, everything has a tangible, lived in feel. The environments feel constantly wet – from the moisture in the trees to the mud on the ground. Reichardt and her production did an excellent job of making this place feel like the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Characters are always bundled up in heavy coats and floppy hats. There seems to be a constant mist present. Structures appear to be made out of rusty nails and decaying wood. Without question, this is a tough place to stake your claim.
And yet, the impression of First Cow is one of warmth and tenderness. There is compassion and humanity between Cookie and King-Lu, and the way they depend on each other is one of sincere empathy. They allow themselves to understand one another, to help each other make it against the odds. That is the heart of what Reichardt and Raymond are doing – to take a story that has the look of something familiar and digging deeper to reveal true human compassion. It’s one thing to go through life, but it’s another entirely to go through it with a friend. The film opens with a quote from poet William Blake that encompasses this idea:
“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”
It’s a notion that threads through the narrative but could be applied to our current state of affairs. In a time where too many of us are pointing fingers, here we have something asking for grace and camaraderie. I don’t know if the film is perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.