“First Cow,” adapted by Kelly Reichardt with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond from the latter’s novel The Half Life, pioneers in cross-pollinating love and commerce, my sole objection to its romantic correspondence is that it tantalizes instead of enlightening; It's a dissertation of tender and merciless capitalism, in layman's the “American dream”; a story which captures the harsh realities and simple pleasures of a frontier life built painstakingly from rock, wood, and fire; an argument for the power of baked goods; a heist movie (no sooner does it start a provocative hare than it inexplicably abandons the chase). It is somehow both barbaric and pious, peaceful and laced through with the inevitability of disaster and death. Above all of its hats, it is a story of friendship treated as a fertile watering hole in a scorching desert, an oasis. The film begins with a quote from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. The opening scene of unearthed bones is, for the viewer as well as the woman (Alia Shawkat) who finds them, both an invitation and a door into that friendship.
When Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro, “The Big Short”) first finds King Lu (Orion Lee, “A Brilliant Young Mind”), it’s in a moment that in most films would lead to a pursuit, gunfire, disaster. Cookie, a forlorn cook for a group of disgruntled prospectors making a slow journey west, is searching the woods for anything edible, literally anything. He finds mushrooms, but he also finds a man, naked. He does not scream, or alert his brutish traveling party. Instead, he offers warmth, shelter, and if he can manage it, safe passage. Typical of a Reichardt story, much of what happens next is left to one's own interpretation, it happens off-screen and that’s true for much of “First Cow”; like the traveler in the woods who stumbles upon a story, you’re asked to fill in some blanks with imagination.
One of those marquee blanks exists between that first and second time the protagonists meet. The second encounter between the two is similar to the first but the variable is that the fortunes of both men are somewhat reversed. The circumstances are very different, but the offer is the same: warmth, shelter, and this time, companionship. Reichardt shows us what both men want through the small choices they make: Cookie arrives at King Lu’s small, ostracized cabin and immediately sets to work sweeping, tidying, gathering wildflowers to place in a small bottle on a smaller shelf. His friend encourages him, gently, to sit down, rest, and feel at home, but never tells him to stop. Both seem to know that from that moment forward they are a pair, and through Lee and Magaro’s simple, quiet performances, we watch them build and cherish their new bonafide friendship.
The way Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt ("Meek's Cutoff," "Night Moves") set up the first cow in it's introducing shot shows, that to rural Oregon, she is a unicorn or a dragon, glowing (literally) with the promise of riches. Which, of course, is accurate—the cow’s arrival at the home of the Chief Factor sparks Cookie dream of opening a bakery (only possible with milk). And that’s when Reichardt begins to make “First Cow” the most tranquil and soft-spoken heist movie in the history of the genre.
This is a simple film. It moves undisturbed through the thick brush of the Oregon forest. Among its themes is the notion that to truly secure a brighter future you must wring every last drop from the opportunities that present themselves, even if it means risking all you already have. Like many Americans before them, Cookie and King Lu act in the interest of a wealthy, secure future they don’t yet and probably never will have, protecting their future rich selves rather than their present, vulnerable existence. The second half of the film is powered by the dangerous, Icarian words “just one more,” and while Reichardt keeps us cocooned in the rough but beautiful natural world, she also slowly swells the tension by showing us, again and again, how these two gentle friends succumb to the power of those words.
By the time the film arrives at its ending—either open-ended or quietly but ruthlessly definitive, depending on your interpretation— Reichardt has trained us to see details as gateways to stories, connection as seed for friendship. Like the first cow, she supplies the vital ingredients. What we choose to do with them is up to us.
THC will dissect a film from director Chole Zhao for the next installment of #MovieMonday.