A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business.
“History isn’t here yet.”
“Present day. A dog digs out what appears to be a human skull in the middle of a thinning foest in broad day light. Its owner scurries to investigate, digging up with her bare hands two whole skeletons lying side by side. A quote from William Blake seperate the present from the bygone - “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Cut to a melancholy Pacific Northwest forest in the 1820s populated by fur trappers, cuing the audiences to brace themselves to learn who the bones belonged to, and how they met their fate.”
“The truth is I had been figuring out how to make this story happen for a long time. But it seems is a nice time to tell the story of America as a place of immigrants, just to talk about the power structure that has always been there, the place of capitalism since the beginning, about natural resources being wiped out, on how we’ve ignored all these signs coming from nature. And to talk about ingenuity, you need this, the one thing that tells you that you can always make it the long way to better high life standards, and it could only happen if you're sort of disconnected. This film spoke to those things. But as you mentioned, it’s about friendship too. About all different things friendship can be, about intimacy. It is a love story, for me as well. [Cookie and King Lu] are just two home out people who wish for a domestic life.”
“If it is less directly a response to the western genre than Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow likewise critically subverts frontier myths while treating the period with loving care. Interestingly, both of these films are set before the Civil War; most classic westerns are set afterwards, and many are shaded by the lingering wounds of that conflict, which mingles with the elegiac tone of films depicting the last years of the Wild West. Though often characterized as jingoistic celebrations of Manifest Destiny, westerns - at least the best of them - are as much about loss, especially the loss of innocence, as they are about starting over in a new land. Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952), one of the brilliant string of brooding, violent westerns he made with James Stewart, follows a group of pioneers settling in Oregon. It depicts the overnight corruption of a community by gold fever, and the struggles of the scarred hero to shed a dark past, which returns in the form of a morally ambiguous doppelganger. Wherever they settle, pioneers recreate the conditions they left behind.
If the battle between civilization and lawlessness, the struggle to build safe homes and decent towns in a savage wilderness, was ostensibly the great theme of the western, underneath it the real subject is often the fight over resources: gold, cattle, water, and above all land. This conflict pits sheep-men against cattle-men (Shane), powerful ranch-owners against squatters (The Furies), and European settlers against Native Americans. In Anthony Mann’s tragic revisionist western Devil’s Doorway (1950), a desperate band of sheep-farming pioneers are led to a hidden, fertile valley called Sweet Meadows, described as “what all men dream of when they think about home.” But the valley is already home to the Shoshone, who are forbidden by racist laws from staking legal claim to their ancestral territory, and who are finally driven out in a bloody massacre. For one group to find a home, another must be dispossessed. The west’s lands and resources are, paradoxically, both viewed as endlessly abundant and ferociously fought over as though they were scarce. It all comes down to the belief in exclusive ownership over land and animals, and the corrosive drive for profit. First Cow is a radical contrast to western epics full of blazing guns and thundering hoofs, but in its intimate, slyly humorous way, it incisively treats these same themes. The unspoiled lushness of the land and the simple, quotidian pleasures of domestic life and friendship are menaced by the forces of capitalism. It is fitting that the cow’s name is Eve, arriving just at the point where this Eden begins its fall.”
Imogen Sara Smith3
- 1Sadia Khalid, “Kelly Reichardt’s Secret Ingredient”, Berlinale Talent Press, February 2020.
- 2Kelly Reichardt in conversation with Pedro Emilio Segura Bernal, “The Cow’s Gaze: A conversation with Kelly Reichardt”, MUBI, March 2020.
- 3Imogen Sara Smith, “Phantom Light: First Cow and Beyond”, Film Comment, March 2020.