Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow opens with a quote from Romantic poet William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” In Blake’s estimation, these are the active creations of each species – as well as their homes and resting places. Humans take refuge in each other through the creation of social connection and affinity. It is natural.
How fitting that Reichardt should choose to amplify this worldview in her latest film given how her films argue that we are communal, collective creatures at heart – and much of our misery stems from the presumption that we can survive without the support of others. Her Oregon-set oeuvre has largely made this case by depicting the intimate tragedies of people who experience the pitfalls of a society that places a premium on self-sufficiency. First Cow, on the other hand, points toward a positive alternative where people can succeed not at the expense of others but in cooperation with them. Her statement is all the more potent given the genre conventions in which the film largely operates: the Western.
No one would mistake a Kelly Reichardt film for a John Ford Western, to be sure, but First Cow cleverly works within the parameters of these genre stories. Her ends are to subvert and upend certain tropes and ideologies these films tend to propagate. Reichardt issues a gentle corrective to the Western’s emphasis on individualism and exceptionalism as she patiently unfurls the narrative of two striving outsiders seeking comfort, stability and success in 1820s Oregon. A genre we tend to associate with America’s independence can, in fact, be retooled to show how Americans are truly interdependent at heart.
The two figures at the center of First Cow are radical Western heroes in practically every way, not just because they don’t resemble the WASP-y protagonists that predominate the genre. John Magaro’s Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is a Jewish cook we meet as the fur trappers he feeds bully him, and Orion Lee’s King-Lu is a Chinese immigrant we meet as he’s naked and vulnerable after escaping Russian trappers. Unlike the men (yes, almost exclusively men) at the center of these movies who establish their dominance through a connection with the untamed wilderness of the West, this film’s duo bear more association with the civilization and culture of the East. Many Western heroes begin their films on the outside of a society that will need to bring them in for the group’s own well-being; rarely are such heroes true outsiders.
As such, this affects the way they experience much of the classical Western arc as described by Will Wright in his seminal 1975 genre study “Sixguns & Society.” It’s striking to see how frequently First Cow meets various beats in his 16-part taxonomy of the classical Western … but does so in a way that quietly challenges the functions, showing who they work for (and who, by extension, they do not). When Cookie and King-Lu arrive at the encampment of The Royal West Pacific Trading Post, they are entering a social group as unknowns to that society. The area is teeming with arrivals from across the globe – Scots, Russians, Irish – though neither Cookie nor King-Lu can immediately fit in with a fairly heterogenous group. While Cookie meets the European ethnic profile, he lacks the ruggedly masculine attitudes that pervade the group. King-Lu, alternatively, can match their enterprising attitudes but stands out ethnically.
Together, they fuse into a sort of collective protagonist as they team up in a proto-joint partnership. “History hasn’t arrived here yet,” King-Lu posits as they begin to plot out a strategy to achieve glory and transcend their lowly stations while the foundations of American capitalism remain unset. They hatch a plan to take advantage of how the West provides a land of abundance without many of the traditional institutions and power structures that would rob them of capital and standing. Through a combination of Cookie’s culinary prowess and King-Lu’s entrepreneurial hustle, the two set up shop to sell “oily cakes” to the encampment so they can save money toward the goal of opening a hotel in California.
One thing Reichardt makes clear as they embark upon their venture: this would not be possible for either Cookie or King-Lu on their own. Only in rejecting the American mythos of individual achievement can they rise. Where the Western hero traditionally seeks freedom from other people, the leads of First Cow seek freedom in each other. The men make a formidable team, accentuating each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s shortcomings. The tender instincts of Cookie, whose first act in the film is helping to flip a capsized lizard on the forest floor, need King-Lu’s aggressive salesmanship tactics to make his product a success. Alone, they could accomplish little. Together, they are mighty.
Indeed, the cakes go over like gangbusters at the trading post, marking an unconventional fulfillment of how a Western hero reveals their exceptional ability to the social group. In classical iterations of the genre, this sequence normally entails a man proving his skills fighting with a gun, long aligned as a metaphorical extension of the male sex organ. Cookie and King-Lu prove their worth to the traders in First Cow through the production of their doughy delights, domestic labor often coded as feminine in traditionally gendered conceptions of labor.
There are limits to their collectivist energy, however. While the inventiveness and ingenuity of Cookie and King-Lu recalls an American legacy of scrappy outsiders who identify and serve market inefficiencies, they must compensate somehow for their lack of access to institutional capital. King-Lu identifies that they need a miracle, leverage or a crime in order to start; the duo opts for the latter. Part of why their cakes confer such status upon the business partners is the secret ingredient that makes for their X-factor: milk, a commodity not previously available in the territory. They sell it to the eager queue of hungry customers as an “ancient Chinese secret” to lend it exoticism and mystery, but the marketing belies the sordid truth about how much of the early American economy functioned. Not unlike the economy of the South at this time, their financial success comes from extracting a key component of their output from labor they do not pay for.
By night, Cookie coaxes the white gold from the region’s first bovine arrival, which belongs to Toby Jones’ Chief Factor, the man bringing big business to the Oregon territory. Chief Factor proves both unable to recognize how the cakes’ distinctive flavor derives from his own cow or fathom that he could be stolen from. As a result, he seeks to further legitimize them by having Cookie bake the French pastry clafoutis to impress a guest at his manor.
Some spoilers for First Cow to follow.
It’s at this moment where some of the parallels between First Cow and the classic Western begin to fade. The genre conventions derive largely from how the hero positions himself with and faces off against a clearly defined villain, a figure which Reichardt’s film lacks. Perhaps it’s Factor, perhaps it’s nascent capitalism, perhaps it’s just an overarching mindset among the manifest destined. Either way, the hopes of Cookie and King-Lu to achieve what the typical Western hero achieves at the end of the story – full integration into society – dissipate when their dairy heist gets busted late one night.
Following their dinner with Factor, King-Lu grows emboldened to continue their theft of the cow’s milk after observing his obliviousness and narcissism to assume that his trade in beaver furs can continue forever. Cookie sheepishly objects, expressing only the mildest of unease but is clearly growing uneasy with his partner’s escalation. The working relationship continues, yet the personal fissure grows. That night, King-Lu falls from his treetop lookout and catches the attention of a watchman on Factor’s property, thus giving away their whole operation.
In their escape, Cookie suggests they go back to their cabin, but King-Lu insists on fleeing the scene entirely. He barges full speed ahead towards the river, into which he jumps without consulting Cookie. His business partner, stunned, looks up from the ledge and decides to hide in nearby foliage instead. While it’s never openly stated, an early scene in First Cow depicting Cookie traipsing gingerly through a stream suggests that he might not know how to swim – something King-Lu might have thought to ask before planning their entire escape around a body of water. Their camaraderie is now officially fractured, their collective energy dissipated as their paths diverge while evading capture or punishment by Factor and his men.
In their split, Cookie and King-Lu surrender their special status and open themselves up to lose their provisional acceptance in the community. Rather than being welcomed in like the classic Western hero, they now find themselves hunted by Factor and his hired enforcers. And unlike the archetypal protagonists, they do not get to willingly yield what makes them remarkable in exchange for a benefit from the community. Factor effectively ruins their business and makes it inconceivable for them to continue selling inside the trading post.
King-Lu, who is able to communicate with some of the territory’s Native Americans, manages to navigate his way back to secure their bag of earnings. Cookie does not fare so well on his own, though, tumbling down a hill and banging his head against a rock. With some assistance, he does make it back to reunite with King-Lu at the cabin, but the die is cast by this point. When their solidarity budged even in the slightest, it ruined their livelihood, endangered their safety and uprooted their tenuously rising status. They finally regroup to plan their flight together, yet they become sitting ducks for one of Factor’s henchmen who might otherwise sympathize with them; this fresh-faced, meek lad once waited patiently in line for an oily cake only for a man willing to offer a more competitive price muscle him out for the last bit of supply.
Reichardt does not depict Cookie and King-Lu’s death, only leaving us to imply it based on an image of two skeletons discovered by a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog in the film’s present-day prologue. The two bodies rest comfortably side-by-side as they await their passage for escape. Once more, they are in their natural state, the deeply human nest and web of companionship. The success story of First Cow is one of how this collaboration and cooperation produces an underdog triumph in the American West; the tragedy of First Cow is how quickly their gains evaporate when their partnership evinces a modicum of weakness and instability.
The characters’ bond is ultimately insufficient to overcome the muscle of American capitalism and the domineering attitudes that conquered the West. But for a brief, shining moment, Cookie and King-Lu point to an alternative based in shared values and commitment to one’s fellow man rather than myopic self-interest. “We’ll go soon,” King-Lu utters in the film’s final line of dialogue. “I’ve got you.” What a fitting summation of the film’s guiding ethos. Though they will ultimately not go anywhere, they have each other – which is ultimately all we have in the end.
Unlike most Reichardt films, which depict their protagonists in various states of quiet exasperation, First Cow lets us bask in the splendor of a story and a society where men can – however briefly – reconnect with their innate proclivity for connectivity. Though the philosophy of “every man for himself” remains deeply and stubbornly ingrained in the American national character, Reichardt’s body of work stands as a testament to how that same spirit of individualism can run amok and damage our natural communitarian instincts. There is an alternative, as Cookie and King-Lu demonstrate, and their ultimate failure to prosper points the finger back at the Americans on the other side of the screen. If we want a West – or a country, really – that honors those who seek to thrive in harmony with our natural drive for kinship, it becomes incumbent on us to examine and reevaluate the structures that inhibit their happy ending.
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