First Cow: A Taste of Home
Not since the heyday of the Hollywood studio system has it been the job of the movies to make us feel like everything is all right. This was the day when, more often than not, the world was depicted as shining, hopeful, practically utopian. Since the latter half of the past century, when filmmakers emerged from the sound stages and took to the streets, happy endings became the stuff of legend. One must only take a look at this year's list of contenders for Best Picture at the Oscars to get a grasp of the current cinema's trend of anguish. While many of said films may be artistically excellent, they are not exactly primed for revisitation. It is because of this saturation of melancholy that films that dare to be optimistic stand out so greatly, and it is one of these films that has landed its position as my favourite movie of 2020.
Kelly Reichardt's First Cow recounts how two men, a cook from Boston, and a Chinese immigrant on the run from the law, form an unlikely friendship and business partnership within the uncertainty of 1820's Oregon country. When the duo discovers that a nearby wealthy British merchant has come into the ownership of the region's first dairy cow, they hatch a plan to steal the cow's milk in the middle of the night and use it to make fried cakes to sell to hungry and homesick travellers at a fort marketplace. The pair must weigh the risk of being caught to the vast financial profits gained by their endeavour. Weaved within this whimsical plot is the irrepressible desire to find one's home in other people.
Reichardt's cinematic methodology is summarized in the first scene. We open on a narrow body of water, and a massive, modern-day shipping tanker begins passing through the frame. On the shore a woman in contemporary clothing walks her dog and soon comes upon an unusual sight: two skulls laid side by side in the dirt. One could reasonably expect the woman (played inconspicuously by Alia Shawkat) to run away in horror, scream, call the police which would lead to a sensational investigation into foul play. Instead, the woman keeps digging, a look of intrigue across her face. After she pushes away several centuries of earth, she uncovers two skeletons lying side-by-side. The woman looks up towards the sky, contemplating the last sight of the deceased. By framing this discovery of death as a moment of joy and wonderment rather than fear or devastation, Reichardt invites the audience to approach her film free of cynicism otherwise required in so much modern cinema. Her work is easily comparable to that of Agnes Varda, who amongst the insincerity of the French New Wave skillfully told stories with genuine compassion for her audience and subjects, or Czech New Wave director Jiri Menzel, who would surely be disheartened by cinema's current trends. Said Menzel:
“We all know that life is cruel and sad. What’s the point of demonstrating this in films? Let us show how brave we are by laughing at life. And let us not consider that laughter to be an expression of cynicism but rather of reconciliation.”
Far from cruelty and sadness, First Cow takes us by the hand to encourage our curiosity, convincing us to not be scared and keep digging.
We are then introduced to our protagonists, the aforementioned duo that use their unique talents to survive in 1820's Oregon. Cookie, played by John Magaro with a temperament that would make Mr. Rogers seem like a drill sergeant, and King-Lu, played methodically by Orion Lee, meet under exceptional circumstances. Cookie is working as a cook for a fur-trapping expedition, and his gentle disposition makes him the target of the group's pent-up masculine rage. One night, Cookie comes upon a naked King-Lu crouching within the brush of the forest floor. King-Lu explains he is on the run for a killing a man who murdered his friend. Cookie, unable to see anything other than good intentions, offers to hide him in his tent overnight. Once arrived at Fort Tillicum, King-Lu returns the favour by offering him a home.
The relationship between Cookie and King-Lu contains multitudes, and Reichardt approaches this as she does the rest of the film: without comment, allowing for each audience member to come to their own unique conclusion. Their meeting supports the existence of fate, with Cookie arriving from the east and King-Lu from the west, meeting in the middle to form this singular partnership. Both men are out of place in this environment that values white, aggressive, dominant masculinity above all else, and they gravitate towards one another out of a desire for companionship. What develops is a cross between camaraderie, domesticity, and intimacy. Upon his arrival at King-Lu's shack, Cookie instinctively begins performing duties typical of a housewife: sweeping the floor, shaking dust out the carpet, even collecting wildflowers for decoration. All the while King-Lu chops wood and sets animal traps outdoors. While no romantic or sexual relationship is ever explicitly demonstrated, Reichardt effortlessly presents the film as a queer narrative as if by slight-of-hand, without fanfare or self-congratulation. In an interview with Marc Malkin for Variety, Magaro reflected on this subtext without mincing words:
"It’s a deep love. They’re beyond friends. They’re soulmates. They have a divine connection to each other.”
Whether the vast emptiness of the desert or the overflowing rainforests, we have grown accustomed though cinema to see the west as wild, untamed, somehow both teeming with danger and brimming with prosperity. On top of racism against Native Americans and the myth of 'Manifest Destiny', much of this is to do with the unbridled domination that nature possesses over the region. Such an environment may appear hostile to some. But for this reviewer, who has spent her entire life in the Pacific Northwest, I was amazed by Reichardt (a Florida native)'s ability to expertly capture the area's majesty, simultaneously awe-inspiring and inviting. This is a western far from the likes of Ford and Hawks, the place where any goodhearted outcast could settle down and call home.
At Fort Tillicum, men of every age and extraction flock for a taste of Cookie's "oily cakes", their rough exteriors softening with every bite. All are far from home and craving a feeling of reassurance and comfort. Even Evie, the titular cow, is mourning the loss of her 'husband' and calf that were lost on the trip to the region. Regardless of origin, all find something familiar in these cakes. "Tastes like something my momma made,” one man declares. "Think of it as a little taste of home,” responds King-Lu. Evie's owner, the Chief Factor played by Toby Jones, comes to the market having heard tale of these delicious treats. He smiles after his first bite: "I taste London in this cake", he whispers, so delighted that it does not even occur to him to ask its ingredients, allowing the ruse to continue.
At any point throughout the film's two-hour runtime, one may remember those two skeletons lying side-by-side in the dirt. It doesn't take a huge leap to assume that the deceased are Cookie and King-Lu. Yet, as Reichardt has consistently reminded us, this is not cause for heartache, but simply an occurrence, a matter-of-fact incident. At the film's end, after the pair's milk-stealing scheme has been discovered and the two must escape their execution by the humiliated Chief Factor and his band of goons, Cookie lies down under a tree, slipping in and out of consciousness after a devastating head wound. King-Lu, intending to catch a boat to the south, sits at his side. He offers to take first watch, then reclines and takes Cookie's hand, "I've got you", he says, his eyes closed. We cut to black. Once again, Reichardt allows her audience to contribute to the film's story by leaving its conclusion open-ended, primed for unique interpretation and further discussion. What we know is that to these men, being together is more valuable than being apart, even in death. Brought to mind is the William Blake quote situated at the film's opening:
"The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship"