It was somewhere in the fall festivals of last year when I first saw an image of a soft-eyed man with a soft brown cow, and knew without having to know anything else about it that this movie was going to heal my soul.
I could not have known then how true and necessary that would be by the time I would finally watch it! Four months after its March theatrical release was curtailed almost as soon as it began by the pandemic that still grips the country, A24 decided that something they could do for a strained and weary populace was to give us all a little First Cow, as a treat. Following director Kelly Reichardt’s suggestions, I bought it in SD, for softness, scooped myself a little bowl of Talenti’s oak-aged vanilla (a mellow toasted dream), and let myself be carried away, to…well exactly where I am now actually, but 200 years earlier.
First Cow takes place in western Oregon Territory in the 1820s, and tells the story of two frontier outsiders who invented male domesticity and also dairy fraud. One of them is Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz, a talented baker and the gentlest man in the world. The other is King-Lu, a bright, lifelong traveler who loves two things: business enterprise, and Cookie Figowitz. There is also a cow, the First Cow (in the territory), who is introduced being ferried serenely up the river so that the foolish but wealthy English trader who has built a house near the fort can have milk in his tea. Cookie spies a precious baking ingredient, King-Lu spies an even more precious Opportunity—a chance to make their American fortune here in the American west. (That the only way it is possible for the poor to get started on the road to capitalist success is through stealing from those hoarding the resources, is of course the point.) With their secretly-gotten milk, the two of them begin selling Cookie’s perfectly tender ‘oily cakes’, befitting this PERFECT, TENDER MOVIE. O the Tenderness! The companionship, the care, the cow! Just the sweet, feeling way John Magaro speaks to her? When I tell you that I clutched my hand over my heart—!
Kelly Reichardt movies are always unhurried yet precise, and what that means in her latest and loveliest landscape film is that each low-tempo joke or act of friendship or moment of discovery just unfolds on you, with this easy, comfortable pace like the hooting of an owl in a tree. It sweeps you up and takes care of you. Kelly Reichardt understands that what I want to watch in a movie is a steady, quiet view of a man washing his chest though the open slats of his rustic tiny-home while his soft-spoken partner bakes them donuts with a whisk he fashioned out of twigs. Kelly Reichardt understands that what the topaz-edged early autumn days in the Pacific Northwest need are mist and cool mud and also peaceful guitar melodies. Kelly Reichardt understands the inherent drama of a clafoutis.
She also understands the appeal of: Alia Shawkat, René Auberjonois as a disgruntled old man with a pet raven (!), my favorite British character actor Toby Jones, Cardinal Dussolier from The Young Pope, LILY GLADSTONE, and otherwise attentively ensuring that this naturalist world she is filming is full of Chinook and Multnomah people just living their various lives along the encroaching shoreline of capitalist American history.
In a graceful historian’s choice for a period piece, Alia Shawkat’s nearly wordless opening scene with her dog in the present day introduces our story’s eventual endpoint at the beginning, providing a poignant frame for all that is to come. But even before that, First Cow‘s emotional contextualizing begins foremost with an epigraph from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” And I would like to add another, from Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread.”