(This review originally ran during our coverage of the New York Film Festival last year. First Cow is now available on VOD.)
Her films might not blare “it’s the economy, stupid,” but make no bones about it – Kelly Reichardt’s cinema frequently obsesses over how the mechanics of commercial arrangements affect interpersonal relationships. Though micro in scale, her films are macro in mindset. Her latest look at the subject, First Cow, goes all the way back to the fledgling days of American capitalism. The film finds an effective and ultimately touching contrast between the friendships born of enterprising businessmen and the ruthlessness of competing with entrenched elites.
Reichardt once again trains the lens on her beloved Pacific Northwest, this time in an 1820s, pre-statehood period for Oregon. In this space, the settlers are still making the rules. While the normal rules of economic gravity still apply, the lack of institutional structures do allow for some ingenious folks with an entrepreneurial appetite to strike it rich.
Enter John Magaro’s Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, an outlier among his traveling group of fur trappers. (As the name suggests, he’s the cook for the group.) While he possesses a vital and life-sustaining skill set, Cookie becomes a lightning rod for verbal abuse and degradation from the men in his caravan because he lacks their brawn and brute strength. Magaro expertly conveys Cookie’s sensitivity throughout First Cow, whether it’s expressed as timidity early on or as compassion as the film develops.
Cookie gets the chance to change his trying circumstances by way of a chance encounter with a Chinese immigrant, Orion Lee’s King-Lu, in the woods. As outsiders in their own way, the two instantly strike a tender – if at times tenuous – bond. Unlike Cookie, who might mope about in misery if left to his own devices, King-Lu sees opportunity in the way a society controlled by domineering white men views people like them. A stray suggestion from Cookie about making a biscuit quickly spins into a money-making scheme in King-Lu’s eyes. He recognizes how they can monetize a skill like cooking that meets a basic human need like hunger … and perhaps even ladder out of their lowly station in life. As he puts it, “Men like us have to make our own way, take what we can when the taking is good.”
King-Lu exhibits quite the knack for salesmanship, peddling a false claim that Cookie’s biscuits taste as good as they do thanks to an “ancient Chinese secret.” For once, the exoticism that marginalizes immigrants like him can work to his advantage. The lines that gather for their hot commodity, too, speak to the nascent dynamics that will come to define the next two centuries of American capitalism: strong men muscling their way to the front of the line and deep-pocketed buyers willing to spend whatever it takes to get what they want.
Oh, and, of course … theft. The lack of resources available to Cookie and King-Lu forces them into furtively taking the ingredients they need from those with a bounteous supply. The duo’s biggest mark is Toby Jones’ Chief Factor, an English landowner in possession of the sine qua non of their entire business: milk. He owns the titular bovine creature, with whom Cookie makes ample conversation during his nighttime missions to extract her dairy. He opens up with an honesty and candor he cannot even muster up around his business partner.
In her own intricate, earnest way, Reichardt gives us a version of There Will Be Blood for her chosen swath of the country. The unhurried, gentle pace of First Cow might lend the deceptive impression that the film is somehow simple. It is not. Reichardt has plenty on her mind about the region’s foundational economic conditions and how they continue to cast a shadow over Oregon, and the country, today. She’s also keenly aware of how many dilemmas from the time period still apply today, particularly the tradeoff between emotional self-sacrifice and rational self-interest.
The film eventually arrives at a key fork in the road for Cookie in his personal and professional career, and Reichardt beautifully renders the tension. It’s fraught without explanation because she chooses not to verbalize the agony of his decision. By grounding her intellectual explorations in intimately observed human drama, Reichardt delivers another nuanced behavioral portrait as well as an incisive historical tome.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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