New VOD Releases: First Cow (2020)-Reviewed

(Image courtesy of A24)

"History Hasn't Gotten Here Yet."

So says King Lu (Orion Lee) early on in First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's latest examination of the people on the margins of society and how their struggles and sacrifices shape the myth of the American Dream more than anyone we'll ever learn about in a white-washed, sanitized history. Lu's declaration echoes both hopefully and painfully through the film, a reminder that history is both what we make it but ultimately almost never decided by the people who shape it. Those people are often swallowed by the expansion of a world more concerned with money and riches than it is its people.

(Image Courtesy of A24)

When we first meet our lead, Cookie (John Magaro), he's encompassed in the thick brush of a forest. Cookie, hired by fur trappers to cook their meals while they survive in the wilderness, hasn't been living up to his job description. One night, as the food dries up and the men become less patient with him, Cookie ventures back out into the forest. It's here he stumbles upon the man who will soon become more important to him than anyone or anything, King Lu. Lu, a Chinese immigrant, is on the run from Russian traders after killing one of their men for killing his friend. Cookie feeds a starving Lu and provides shelter for him. The two men go their separate ways but fate brings them together in a small village in Oregon. It's here that the two men, after learning that a prized cow has arrived, hatch a plan to steal its milk at night and create delicious donut-like pastries to sell the next day.

Reichardt, always taking the smallest of stories, packs so much commentary about class and who gets to succeed in a burgeoning capitalistic society. It isn't a mistake that Cookie and King Lu's introductions are contrasted with the Cow's (played by the lovely Eve the Cow) relaxing journey across the water. The Cow represents wealth, prosperity and the chance at making it in this new, treacherous land. Her trip is unremarkable because as the possession of a wealthy nobleman, her journey (and his) is set in stone. While Cookie and King Lu stumble and in the latter's case, fight their way through the forest, the cow and her owner were going to make it to the land of opportunity no matter what. 

(Images Courtesy of A24)

Perspective is everything in First Cow both textually and meta-textually. Within the film, what Cookie and King Lu are doing doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. In a land where people are being killed by each other or the elements, stealing a little milk every night should hardly even register. But to two men who barely even made it here, it's everything. It's their ticket to San Francisco where a lifetime of opportunity awaits. Her milk is their lifeblood. And to Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the owner of the prize cow, it and her milk are simply another object for him to brag about. He'd be rich with or without the cow. Her milk, secretly providing him pleasure in the cakes Cookie and King Lu are making, just another ornament in a life full of them. Cookie and King Lu quite literally seize the means of production and make Chief Factor pay for something that wouldn't be possible without the very thing he owns. Reichardt makes manifest a society in which this can work but from the wrong perspective, it's criminal and punishable by death.

Outside of the narrative, Reichardt's use of perspective drives these themes even further. By using a square aspect ratio she has the lush forestry overtake you and her leads. The black bars on either side feel oppressive as what you can't see and the future these men are striving for, feels just out of reach. When we meet Cookie and King Lu, the forest fills the screen, the world engulfing the two as they begin their journey into a society that will throw everything in their way to see them fail. Conversely, the Cow's serene journey across the water is shot in wide, the vastness of the water all around her. In the middle of the water, she's unobtainable like everything she represents. Reichardt drives home just how important Cookie, King Lu and their cakes are to the functioning of a happy village by filming every moment of conflict not between the two, from a distance. If there's a fight, a chase or a moment of strife, her camera stays focused on her leads. They might not be important to the men above them but to Reichardt, her camera and her audience, they're everything. This is filmmaking as scathing socio-political commentary writ large and it might just be her masterpiece.

What makes this all work like magic is that it's not an inherently angry film. These are big picture ideas framed in the smallest windows possible, sometimes quite literally. At its heart, First Cow is a lovely story about two friends who will do anything to give each other a chance at hope. There's never a big speech about what the two men mean to one another and it's possible the two are even in love. Instead, they're drawn back to one another time and time again. As the future beckons and the American West expands, these two men, in their own small way were a part of that. Reichardt, using her trademark subtlety and naturalism opts to let you fill in the margins by using the people who filled in the margins. It's a staggering feat, both profoundly leveling yet one of the most calming experiences you'll have all year. To me, that's the enigma of Kelly Reichardt. She's able to wrap the massive into the small so deftly that sometimes it might fly right over your head as you're lost in the sensual sights and sounds around you. But if you do the work, there's a rich world beneath the surface that demands attention and dissection. 

-Brandon Streussnig