The Western genre is the story of America’s foundation, or at least the way we like to tell it. This has always been the case from the early days of Hollywood, when filmmakers like John Ford told tall tales of brave white pioneers traversing nature and spreading freedom along the way. Even in the recent days of the Western revival, when films like Deadwood, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Unforgiven challenged the myths about traditional masculinity in far more accurate depictions of our past, the Western explores who we are and how we came to be. That’s why Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is such a smart, joyful film: it paints a picture about the creation of our nation in an honest, fairly uplifting light, and does so by challenging our preconceived notions about business, friendship, and masculinity.
In 1820, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro, with one of the best character names of all time) travels with a group of abusive fur trappers through Oregon Country as their personal chef. Like many, they’ve traveled into the Oregon forests to seek their fortune, and the only comforts they know are a series of makeshift camps that provide hard beds, warm campfires, and mediocre cooking. The Irish Figowitz finds his luck changed when he stumbles upon King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the lam for killing a white man in a duel. Cookie and Lu end up forming a fast friendship due to their shared (and often ridiculed) empathy, and soon come up with the perfect moneymaking scheme. You see, the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy English man looking to colonize the territory, has recently acquired a cow that he’s had transported out to the territory – the first and only cow in the region. By the cover of nightfall, Cookie and Lu sneak into the Chief Factor’s camp, milk the cow, and use the milk to make “oily cakes” (basically a glorified muffin). The prospectors, fur trappers, and lumberjacks, who have not tasted real cooking in months, are willing to pay top dollar for the delicious treats – marketed by Lu as an “ancient Chinese secret.” For a while, business is booming. The only question is, in a land where humanity is driven to its basest tendencies, how long can two (mostly) pure souls like Cookie and Lu truly survive?
Many films – and especially Westerns – before First Cow have tackled the subject of the building of America. The entire series of Deadwood is about the moral compromises and dealings that helped build a society in North Dakota. However, it is not Kelly Reichardt’s themes that make this such a delightful film. It is in the way she explores them, in both positives and negatives, as a warm-hearted journey through our nation’s history. In a lot of ways, the film is a warmhearted counterpoint to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a film about how Big Business managed to build civilization in the West at the cost of our very soul. First Cow acknowledges business’ role in building this nation, but rather than focus on its negative aspects (although it does explore those too), it instead focuses on the way immigrants of every nation, creed, and religion came together in one place to make their fortune, and despite their worst tendencies as humans, managed to create something great in the process.
It’s a mission that, in theory, should have failed. As two characters lament upon learning of the cow’s arrival, “This is no place for cows. God woulda put them here otherwise. It’s no place for white men, either.” First Cow bucks the John Wayne narrative to focus instead on the immigrants who built this nation, and we revel in watching expatriates from Ireland, Russia, Scotland, China, England, France, and so many more come together to turn swampy, uninhabitable land into a settlement, which would one day become a port, and one day become a city. Two of the best shots involve mirror images of ships entering a harbor – originally an oil tanker in 2020, and then a reprisal in 1820 with a wooden ship carrying the eponymous cow. The “precious cargo” may have changed, and the shipping technology may have evolved, but the message is clear: the work done by those displaced settlers of old directly brought our country to today.
Because the story of America and Big Business is so synonymous (especially in the settling of the West), it is safe to assume that there’s a healthy bit of business satire buried within First Cow’s subtext. The film serves as an extended metaphor about small start-ups trying to undercut Big Business, and each twist in the story comes with comedic and tragic undertones. Cookie and Lu represent the spirit of entrepreneurialism, realizing that they do not fit in with the chaos of the region nor the order instituted by the rich fat cats running things. The entire idea plays on a reverse of the realities of the era, where American businesses accumulated wealth by abusing the land and Chinese immigrants – here, a Chinese immigrant uses nature to his advantage to take advantage of pompous, yet homesick white men. Their success is borne out of two key factors: the first is ignorance, as the uneducated masses moving to the region never dare to question Lu’s claims of “secret Chinese ingredients.” However, more importantly, it plays on their inner humanity. Everyone in this region, corrupt or earnest, is homesick and desperate. They want to stake their own claim in the Land of Opportunity, so their sacrifices are not for naught.
It’s hard not to see Cookie speaking from experience as he soothes the cow by reflecting on her lost “husband and son.” The deceased bovines are a striking metaphor for the many who died traveling West to provide for themselves and their families, and Cookie and Lu seize on that. These are two men who realize the American Dream (before the term was ever used) would only work for them if they gamed the system. “Men like us have to make our own way. Take what we can while the taking is good,” Lu explains to his culinary companion. Reichardt never overplays her hand with these themes; instead, she just lets her lovely script flow with smart, moving monologues that never beat the audience over the head. Hell, the closest she comes to an obvious metaphor is when her protagonists debate moving their scheme from Oregon to San Francisco – an obvious, yet still humorous – metaphor for Silicon Valley. First Cow is about the schemes, transactions, and double crosses that went into building this country, for better or worse, and it does so without the appraisals or critiques we’ve become accustomed to in far lesser films.
Underlying the themes of business and society is a rarity in films like this: a heartwarming portrayal of positive masculinity. America has always been obsessed with the idea of the gruff loner, and has idealized this in our own mythology. First Cow offers audiences a gentle, warmer depiction of masculinity than what we’ve seen from John Wayne, Karl Malden, or Waler Brennan. Cookie and Lu are two souls out of step with the realities of the era, and Reichardt shows this in as many ways possible. Even outside their supportive, compassionate friendship, we see a softer side in these protagonists from the jump, as Cookie gently flips a gecko back over in one of his first scenes, and the duo reunites after some time apart when they reject a macho obsession with a bar brawl occurring outside their abode.
First Cow offers an alternative to the history we’ve been taught, where society was not built by aggressors determined to tear everything down and start anew, but through the power of camaraderie, togetherness, and friendship. The duo succeeds because of their empathy – their empathy for each other allows their business to flourish, their empathy for the cow allows Cookie to develop a special relationship, and their empathy for their fellow settlers allows them to form connections. Nothing proves this more than when the Chief Factor – otherwise the villain of the piece – tries an oily cake for the first time and tearfully reflects that he “tastes London in this cake.” Cookie and Lu are selling home, comfort, and friendship in their cakes, something these settlers have not felt in many months – or maybe years. And when coupled with a story about friendship (and maybe even platonic romance, depending on how you read it), you can’t help but be moved by the warmth of this piece.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on Reichardt’s filmmaking, which hearkens back to the era of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes in enviable ways. I mean, this film draws you in aesthetically just from the jump. Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous 4:3 cinematography is picturesque – and objectively puts to shame imitators who don’t understand the ratio (*cough cough Zack Snyder cough cough*). The images are accompanied by a flawless sound design, which only breaks from its naturalistic tone to indulge in William Tyler’s gently modern, yet ultimately traditional score. And Reichardt pulls triple duties as the editor of the film, to outstanding effect. She takes her time with each visual, allowing for slow, deliberate, and methodical moments, like the opening sequence of a tanker slowly but surely crossing the screen in its entirety. Yet it is in this slowness that Reichardt lets the film breathe, as its methodology allows small moments to develop greater import, like the image of a cow subtly nuzzling a hand during a gathering. In its pacing, there is an inherent warmth that only an auteur could have provided, and that’s exactly what Reichardt is in this case: an auteur.
As for the acting, this is a two-hander surrounded by terrific character actors. John Magaro is an actor I’ve otherwise been lukewarm on to date, but he’s terrific here as Cookie Figowitz (I’m still delighted by that name). He brings this bright and beautiful warmth to the role I’ve never seen from him before, and I’m not sure how many other actors could have matched that pure-heartedness. Meanwhile, I’d go as far as to call this Lee’s film through and through. Not only does he have great chemistry with Magaro in each and every scene, but he commands the film from his first moment onscreen. He possesses the presence of a natural salesman (which is what Lu is, at the end of the day), and as the character with the most monologues, he sells the hell out of each and every one of them.
As for the rest of the ensemble, I’ll say this: I’m a simple man. You put Toby Jones in a film, as good guy or bad, and I’m gonna see it. He’s one of the best character actors working today. And Lily Gladstone gives a commanding turn in a small part as Jones’ wife. The fellow campers all have terrific moments to shine, like Gary Farmer and Dylan Smith, and I’m always happy to see the hilarious Ewen Bremner show up somewhere. And in one of his final roles before his death, I’m happy to say that René Auberjonois gives a commanding turn as Man with Raven, even if his casting is mostly lip service to his role in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In fact, the only performance that doesn’t quite work for me is Alia Shawkat, who appears in a cameo too difficult to properly dissect. It’s not a bad performance, it’s just one where a celebrity appearance is too distracting for the themes being portrayed in the moment. Still, it’s only a small quibble in an otherwise-great ensemble.
First Cow is the type of film that blends the head and the heart, the body and the mind, the cerebral and the emotional. It’s a film that may not be your favorite in the moment, but it’s the kind of film you’ll still be talking about in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time. I can’t promise you’ll love it – I know several people, both critics and general Western fans, who just couldn’t connect with its message. I get that. It’s not what you’d expect from a typical Western. But if you want to see a film that can move your soul while making you think, and genuinely makes you want to be a better person, then watch First Cow. You won’t regret handing your heart over.
First Cow is now playing/streaming on Showtime. It can also be purchased on most VOD sites for $4.99