Centred around the importance of friendship at a time when such a things were scarce, this film could easily have been called 'First Friend', or the even more apt, 'First Biscuits'. Clearly those would be a terrible idea, and it mitigates the important role that nature and animals play in Kelly Reichardt's ('Certain Women') latest indie gem, 'First Cow'.
'First Cow' actually opens in present day Oregon, as a woman walks her dog and consequently stumbles across two skeletons buried in the ground, lying side by side. Cut to 1820s America, and it's not long before we meet our protagonist, Cookie (John Magaro, 'Not Fade Away'), who is the designated chef amongst a travelling band of trappers. Immediately, audiences learn everything they need to know about Cookie. He is not cut from the same cloth as those around him, displaying a calmness, a simplicity and a morality not common in these parts. His life is about to change when he finds King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant hiding in the woods, bare naked and on the run from another gang. Cookie, always wanting to do what's right, immediately cares for him, giving him food and blankets and offering his tent for the night's sleep. A bond is struck and a friendship is formed, even though audiences dare make the instant connection to the discovery at the opening prologue.
King-Lu is the embodiment of the American Dream, always on the look out for the next big break, forever searching for an enterprising idea - while Cookie rests on simpler dreams of opening a bakery. Both are hungry for more, and both are looking to flex their muscle on American capitalism. Cookie hasn't found his place in the new world yet, being far more satisfied with his new boots than a brawl at the public house, but after spending time together in King-Lu's cabin, a scheme is birthed to steal the milk from the first and only cow in the territory, which just so happens to belong to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones, 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'). King-Lu's entrepreneurial skills together with Cookie's baking mastery, they start to sell biscuits as their friendship - and the subsequent danger - continues to grow.
'First Cow' is a wonderful, gentle and optimistic portrait of the American life. Similarly to her other works, Reichardt brings a minimalist style to her canvas, knowing that the natural setting and depth of characters are enough to craft an authentic and meaningful story. Loosely based off the novel 'The Half Life' by Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt set out to make a film about friendship, evident by the William Blake quote that opens the film, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." But if this quote illustrates anything, it's that nature and man are one of the same, and Reichardt knows exactly how to showcase the weight and importance of one's surroundings.
Shot on 35mm film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, you couldn't ask for a more authentic touch, nor a better tool to highlight the setting. Reichardt comments herself that the landscape has to actually work with every shot and not just simply look pretty, and so her resulting choice of this aspect ratio perfectly frames this world. Filled with the vertical lines of the trees, and confining the characters to just the space they operate in, Reichardt is able to capture the intimacy of the friendship, as well as the role nature will play for them. As an added bonus, it just so happens to also look breathtakingly beautiful.
More than just a lens into the first taste of American capitalism, there is equal importance placed on man's footprint on nature. Audiences are left questioning the entitlement these men felt, placing an importance on who or what was left out, and what systems were in place even at this early juncture to accommodate them. Cookie's relationship with the cow (Eve, in her first screen role) is a comfort to both of them, but ultimately, the milk is stolen goods. Nature heals but can also destroy because yes, it does provide for them, but it also ends up costing them everything. I won't go in to the spoiler territory of how, but it's an aspect of the film that, although subtle, feels so integral to the film's dissection and understanding.
Similarly to her other works, Reichardt brings a minimalist style to her canvas, knowing that the natural setting and depth of characters are enough to craft an authentic and meaningful story.
Reichardt accepts her protagonists warts and all, establishing the setting as part of their human psyche, not just the place where the story unfolds. It's why 'First Cow' feels so profound, and has led me to think about it much more than I initially anticipated. It's a not a film I immediately wanted to re-visit, finding it self-indulgent in parts and too pedestrian in others. But the poignancy of the conclusion, and the themes it explores, gives it so much value that it can't be ignored. Morality and survival are not the same thing, but it's the purpose said morality places on one's existence, and the potential success that stems from it, that ultimately makes 'First Cow' a must see.
It's clear that so much research went into the costumes and detail of the characters, and it rewards the narrative as a whole. The score and sounds of the wild are a wonderful complement to the film, setting the tone and aiding the precision of the storytelling. There is comfort and balance brought to this version of a Western, and Reichardt does extremely well to not only mould her own story, but to avoid all the conventional tropes that usually follow suit.
'First Cow' may show an origin of capitalism, but unlike the wild west of Wall Street, Reichardt points to an alternate reality where it's not the muscle of capitalism that conquers, but rather the sweet companionship and commitment to fellowship that will, not the greed of self-interest. In Reichardt's world, greed is a modern illness, and it's only when Cookie and King-Lu's solidarity falters that their lives begin to unravel. People will succeed in cooperation, not at the expense of others - a lesson that feels even more important now in 2020 than it may have ever felt in 1820.