History Hasn’t Happened Yet, But Is Just Beginning in Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’
Kelly Reichardt is one of the strongest voices in independent cinema today, writing, directing, and editing her films with distinction. Her singularity of vision, particular focus on the culture, characters, and landscape of the pacific northwest, and sense of visual cohesion mark her work as truly individual. I, like many other cinephiles, had been following the release and exhibition of her latest feature First Cow for the past two years and was very upset when I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters, as the film premiered commercially the weekend right before Covid-19 launched a global shut down and social standstill.
On premise alone, I didn’t think I would enjoy First Cow nearly as much as Reichardt’s previous films (particularly Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy, and Night Moves); however, after hearing the hype and watching the film myself, my preconceived opinions have since shifted. First Cow is a western drama and buddy film in the vein of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man that follows a gentleman named Cookie, an introverted baker who travels west with a vision of new beginnings and fortune. Early in the film, Cookie meets another outsider, Chinese immigrant King-Lu, who holds similar aspirations and feelings of disbelonging, especially when compared to the aggressive, brutish fur traders traveling alongside them. In stunning visual sequences composed at a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Reichardt and frequent collaborator Christopher Blauvely (director of photography) create a damp, lush, mysterious depiction of the Oregonian landscape in it’s unchained, pre-statehood wilderness.
The film in its intimate, small scale, silently suggests larger political themes relevant to today, such as systemic issues around corporate America, barriers in economic elevation for the everyman, and outsiders banding together to make a life for themselves in an unequally weighted, unethical world. Themes of capitalism, the birth of American enterprise, and immigration come as a sprinkle, but make this period piece timely and worth discussion outside of its immediate charm as a character piece.
I would like to use the rest of my word count for this review as a space to shower some more specific praise/details of appreciation:
This might come as an odd selection for discussion, but I really want to take a minute to applaud this choice. As the film is technically a Western genre film set in the 1820’s, it would have been an easy impulse to give into the stereotypical identity of a western typeface. It’s an aesthetic we all know well and, at some point in our lives, deeply appreciated. There’s a quick recognition that comes with it, and I’m happy that whomever is responsible for the creation of this font gave the iconic reference (a livestock branding iron) a modern twist. Tall, stylized, yet smoothed over and wide, this colorful type, both in title and in credits, quickly created a tone that serviced the rest of the film. It was clear from the get go that Reichardt was not interested in making a dated, weighty, ‘Smithsonian channel presents’-eque narrative, but a period piece with a contemporary conversation to service — all of which was quickly illustrated from the typeface alone.
This comment is going to exist in a similar vein as my small point of praise for the films typography. First Cow’s score, while reminiscent of the usual strings, chords, and rhythm one would associate with the wild, wild west, is mellow and electrified — always giving the film a breath of modernity and pulse. The score truly compliments each moment, accentuating the tense, curious, and tender gestures that trickle through the lives of our protagonists while never driving the emotion of the scene. Again, the film is referential, bringing back particular themes while never bracing itself on the tentpole of western expectations.
It is far easier to create a path, or a latter of action-focused plot elevation, then to create a work that is open and ambiguous while still maintaining its grasp; however, First Cow achieves this. The films careful compositions and seemingly effortless editorial add up into a mosaic of a territory in flux, a unique combination and melting pot of aristocratic, colonizing americas, travelers, native Americans, and animals (both natural to the territory and transported into the Oregonian environment for the sake of resource and trade) alike. Animals always have a weighty presence in Reichardt’s films, both as subject and/or an additive element to the film to increase its sense of authenticity to the environment. In First Cow, we see beavers, squirrels, horses, an owl, a dog of course, and our notorious cow — the whole gamut. Environmental landscapes, too, have always been central to Reichardt’s films, taking up a large portion of the films screen time and, oftentimes, igniting the conception of the story itself. For example, Reichardt and writer/frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond conceived of their project Night Moves after spending some time on an organic farm. With Meek’s cutoff, the idea came while camping at the very desert they, eventually, shot the film at. With First Cow, the film started off as a novel, written by Raymond, called The Half Life which is, in actuality, drastically different from the film. In fact, there is no mention of a cow or Oregon in the book at all, while in the film adaption the jersey cow is central to the production and holds the title. Which brings us to our next section…
The film is about two unmasculine men with dreams, aspiration, and poverty. They have the boots on their feet, clothes on their back/in their sack, and the most minimal of objects to get by — to hunt, build a fire, and keep walking through the wilderness. The cow; therefore, is a symbol of economic advantage, resource, and privilege. Once you own something more than basic survival tools, which during this time period was the case, you have a leg up from other people and actual potential for success. We see Cookie’s first taste of privilege when he takes a mans nice, new black boots and walks about town in them — capturing everyones attention. With the introduction of the cow into Cookie’s life, we see Cookie incorporate milk into his baking as well as the resulting economic success from the production of his famous oily cakes (if you would like a recipe, by the way, Vulture has a fantastic article on the subject, which you can find here: https://www.vulture.com/2020/07/first-cow-oily-cakes-recipe.html). The cow becomes everything to Cookie because she’s the reason he can pursue his passion and expand his gifts as a baker, just like Milky White is special to Jack in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. With Jack, Milky White is more than just a friend and/or an object of currency, the cow is connected to magic. For Cookie, the cow was his connection to an everyday version of magic: hope of economic survival and, perhaps, the pursuit of happiness.
“History hasn’t happened yet” is by far one of the greatest lines of the film and truly encapsulates it. Our country was just beginning its environmental, indigenous, and economic takeover, sculpting how our society would later be structured. During this time in the Pacific northwest, before the California gold rush and mass exodus to the American west even began, we had a practically perfect, clean slate to operate on — socially, economically, and politically speaking. Through watching Reichardt’s First Cow, we see the early signs of a corrupted, unbalanced culture on the way, one ruled by aggressive, brutish traders and aristocratic white men born with wealth. First Cow is a slow accumulation of gentle details that give us a fuller picture of a particular time in America that echoes through today — as is often the way of historical period films. First Cow’s intimate depiction of its characters, landscape, and politics provide a refreshing terrain for new conversations and perspectives of where we exist today in America, both personally and systemically.