Land of Milk and Honey
By Gabriel Jandali Appel
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow sets forth an unexpectedly
gentle vision of nascent America.
Since 1999, Daniel Slosberg has been a full-time educator, teaching children about the Lewis and Clark expedition. A musician by trade, Slosberg wears period-appropriate attire, and performs in character. However, Slosberg assumes the identity of neither Lewis nor Clarke, but, instead, that of Pierre Cruzatte, a little-known member of the voyage. Cruzatte was hired as a translator (his mother was Omaha), but is best remembered for accidentally shooting Lewis in the ass, apparently mistaking him for an elk. (A single sentence recounting the event is Cruzatte’s only mention on the Wikipedia page for the expedition.) Slosberg chose Cruzatte because he, like Slosberg himself, was a fiddler. It was important to Slosberg that Cruzatte be known not just for his errant bullet but also for entertaining the other members of the expedition with music. Though I cannot speak for Slosberg, it does seem that Cruzatte would provide an appropriate vehicle for teaching children about early American history, which is so full of abject horror. It’s not whitewashing, exactly, but rather a choice to focus on warmth. Look, kids, there was also a man there who loved music. It wasn’t all bad.
Director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond’s latest collaboration, First Cow (their fifth film together, and third time adapting one of Raymond’s previously published works), takes place in Oregon in 1820, some 15 years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition. When not aimed at the titular bovine, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera focuses on the friendship between two men, Cookie (John Magaro), a chef, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant with what one might call very American ambitions, which he expresses quite bluntly. Walking around the small settlement, King-Lu states, “I sense opportunity here . . . This is a land of riches, I tell you . . . I see something in this land I haven’t seen before.” As with the settings of many of the director’s other films (the hot springs in Old Joy, a small Oregon town in Wendy and Lucy, a wagon trail in Meek’s Cutoff), the world here is small—a colony populated by few characters (though Reichardt does include a fiddler played by Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus), and the story is simple. When the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy English dandy, acquires the only cow in the region, Cookie and King-Lu milk it in the dead of night so that Cookie can make a proper batch of biscuits. King-Lu realizes that if they thieved more milk, they could sell the confections and amass wealth. It works; each day their oily cakes sell out immediately. They then try to get just a little more milk for just a little more money, but are caught and pursued by the Chief Factor and his men.
Reichardt’s customary languid pacing all but forces the viewer to think about context. First Cow is a story of America in its infancy, a preview of American capitalism to come and the bleakness therein. Given the current climate, one might expect to be exposed at some point be exposed to more racism or violence, perhaps the assault of a Native woman, but this doesn’t happen. First Cow has warmer motivations. A darker film about fledgling American enterprise and identity, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), features a protagonist systematically cutting each and every person out of his life in pursuit of prosperity, while in First Cow, Cookie and King-Lu cling to each other until the film’s final frames. Anderson’s protagonist Daniel Plainview flourishes as the US of A grows into itself around him (you remember, he drinks your milkshake); Reichardt’s heroes barely make it out of the nest, though they do find the slightest amount of success, represented mainly by a growing line of customers for the cakes they sell. Inside King-Lu’s small shack, the two men muse about the future, contemplate plans of opening a hotel and bakery, but even as the scene plays, we sense that they will never leave the confines of this shack, the stream in which they fish, or the muddy town square. Because of his ingenuity, King-Lu can imagine a society in which he can thrive, but he won’t be able to get there.
Cinematic history also echoes through Reichardt’s filmography. The presence of the late René Auberjonois in First Cow (one of his final films) recalls another early American period piece set in the Pacific Northwest that he appeared in 50 years ago: Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Altman’s film takes place almost a hundred years after First Cow does. These years make a difference. McCabe manages to thrive within his small town, but forces from the outside world (in the form of a ruthless company) come to thwart him. It is precisely that outside world, still in the making in 1820, that King-Lu and Cookie dream of being able to establish.
The most salient reference for Reichardt (and many others), however, is Robert Bresson. Reichardt replicates a scene almost exactly from Bresson’s penultimate film, The Devil, Probably (1977), in her fifth feature, Night Moves (2013). It falls in almost exactly the same place in both films, very near the start. A young environmentalist narrates a stock-footage film of oceans and oil tankers and planes projected before an audience of other young environmentalists, speaking vaguely about the need to save the planet. Past the eight-minute mark of Night Moves, the scene passes, the character is never seen again, and the film moves on in Reichardt’s lulling and deliberate style. It takes a reexamination to recall the reference, which then requests that the film be filtered through it. Why employ this visual quotation? The ecological terrorists of Night Moves, seemingly so dedicated, blur into Bresson’s utterly lost ones who find absolutely no hope or escape in any of the various ideologies they explore.
First Cow, on the other hand, lines up more closely with Bresson’s final film, L’Argent (1983). Plot-wise, they each begin with a small crime—one that wouldn’t tip any scale of morality toward sin—and trace the ramifications of that crime as they quietly build up to an act of violence (murder, specifically). Both films are pared-down fables about the nature of capitalism, making the case, in so many words, that it is bad. But Reichardt’s film preserves some element of American sweetness. She doesn’t show her murder. Bresson’s main character reacts to the societal structure in which he is trapped by murdering a series of people. First Cow’s Cookie and King-Lu perish before such a society is fully formed. They don’t make it to San Francisco as King-Lu dreams of doing, or open a proper business, or fully integrate with American commerce as we know it. They escape it entirely, in what can only be viewed as an act of kindness and affection by Reichardt.
The last act of First Cow sees Cookie and King-Lu separate while they are chased by men who want to kill them. Cookie is taken in by a Native family, but tells them that he needs to find his friend. King-Lu retrieves their earnings from its hiding place, but instead of taking the money and running, he waits for Cookie at their shack, where they eventually reunite. They end the film lying next to each other, unaware of that one of their armed pursuers has found them. Their efforts to find each other leads to their being found. King-Lu utters, “I’ve got you,” leaving the viewer to wonder if their friendship merely killed them, or if it saved them from what was to come. The opening scenes of the film had given us a glimpse of its conclusion, depicting the territory in the present day, where Cookie and King-Lu’s skeletons remain together in the same position we last see them in. The modern-day framing device is perhaps a nod to Raymond’s novel and the film’s source material, The Half-Life, which Reichardt recently stated in an interview with Deadline, “spans several decades, and two continents . . . and there’s no cow.” But it also shows that however improbable or sentimental, the pair’s bones are united still. There remains love and friendship discovered under the layers of pavement and steel. •
Gabriel Jandali Appel is an assistant editor at Metrograph.