' ' Cinema Romantico: First Cow

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

First Cow

Despite mostly taking place in the early 1800s, “First Cow” opens in the present with a hiker (Alia Shawkat) and her dog inadvertently discovering a shallow grave along Oregon’s Columbia River bearing two skeletons. This is a familiar cinematic device, invoking a sense of fatalism as we flash back to how these two bodies wound up here. The discovery, though, is played with more glow than gloom, evinced in Shawkat’s almost buoyantly spiritual demeanor, looking to the sky, and the wild mushrooms she is picking, visually and emblematically tying this moment back to the past. Though director Kelly Reichardt, working from a Jon Raymond novel she adapted with its author, infuses “First Cow” with critiques of capitalism and classism, she also imbues her film with the warmth of friendship and the poetry of pleasure in the little things.

Those little things are what Cookie (John Magaro) is struggling to find as the proper story in the past opens, picking wild mushrooms around the same river bank, foraging for ingredients as the cook for a party of fur trappers on their way to Fort Tillicum. The trappers’ animal-like behavior, falling into brawls like it’s second nature, is at odds with Cookie’s placid demeanor, his eyes lighting up when he finds a creek to fish, evoking a lyrical soul. This is furthered when he happens upon King-Liu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, on the run from some Russians, hiding in the forest, naked. That lack of clothing is less comical than illustrative of his emotional vulnerability, signaling these men belong to the same wavelength. Cookie provides King-Liu shelter and then helps him escape. Later they meet by chance again, at a tavern near the Fort, congregating around a momentarily abandoned infant as a fight involving the child’s weary father and everyone else spills outside. Cookie wants to look after the child though King-Liu insists the child will be all right regardless, quietly laying bare their worldviews.

If the editing of these opening scenes is elliptical, as if existence struggles to snap into focus, once Cookie and King-Liu settle into their friendship, “First Cow” settles into their groove. Back at King-Liu’s ramshackle cabin on the outskirts of the Fort, he steps outside to cut firewood while Cookie picks up a broom and sweeps. Reichardt stations her camera at the cabin’s rear, framing King-Liu through the window and Cookie to his left, letting us get lost in the gentle rhythms of nothing more than two dudes doing chores.

The plot, as it were, kicks in when Cookie discovers a bovine brought to the Fort by Chief Factum (Toby Jones). King-Liu, dreaming of making enough money to reach San Francisco, sees an opportunity to get rich by stealing milk and making goodies for profit though for Cookie making goodies is in and of itself the reward. In a way, they are both right. Their makeshift pastry stand, basically selling Cookie’s cookie-like cakes right off the ground, is at odds with the ubiquitous mud and shabby dwellings while the otherwise brutish customers are one-by-one felled by Ratatouille moments (“Tastes like something my mama made”), even Chief Factum. If he is not entirely sympathetic, partially oblivious, demonstrably yearning for the fashions and ideas of Europe, these cakes become his own conduit to overseas. Jones and Reichardt let you feel his joy, even if it will eventually be compromised in ways he cannot immediately grasp by his own selfishness and greed.

Cookie and King-Liu stealing Chief Factum’s milk is what transforms “First Cow” into something of a slow cinema thriller. But rather than skewering or subverting thriller cliches, Reichardt essentially strips them of all suspense and leaves them to dry in the sun. In the nighttime scenes where Cookie milks the cow while King-Liu plays lookout from a tree, Reichardt eradicates all the inherent suspense and leaves only love, cultivating a whole other friendship between man and cow in alternating close-ups of Cookie tender milking and the bovine’s big eyes. Cookie is respectful of this natural transaction in a way the cow’s owner is not, brought home in a later shot, after the recurring thefts have been discovered, when the animal has been fenced in and fundamentally trapped.

That Cookie and King-Liu’s scheme all goes wrong goes without saying as Chief Factum and his cronies turn on a dime from enjoying these cakes, unwitting benefactors of the collective, to fortifying the means of production. The denouement, though, becomes less about Cookie and King-Liu’s evasion and escape, or even a brewing confrontation, than something more lyrical, a gradual manifestation of the circle of life in the way the narrative loops back around to where it began, somehow predating Bill Withers.

After fleeing Chief Factum’s men, Cookie stumbles and falls and hits his head, knocked out. Later, he wakes up in the home of the Native American couple who have rescued him. Cookie sees the man through an open window, sort of echoing the shot of Cookie and King-Liu performing household tasks, in the midst of some ritual that Reichardt, thankfully, has no interest in spelling out. Whatever it is, it is too strange, too pure, just a flash of beauty in a cruel world.

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