“First Cow” makes itself known in the subtlest of ways. The newest project of director Kelly Reichardt did not have the grand promotional push of other A24 films, instead quietly releasing its trailer in early January. Featuring a tranquil scan of a caramel-colored cow, the trailer kept the plot hidden, only giving insight into the cinematography’s intricate composition.
The film follows suit in style and substance. Reichardt builds a deliberately unhurried plot that brings precision into each unfolding scene and storyline. Set in the Oregon Territory in 1820, the Pacific Northwest’s mysterious frontier-fantasy-scape blends itself into every shot. The film is notably shot in a square aspect ratio, positioning the lush environment as encroaching, even at times overwhelming. The surrounding natural elements present themselves as actors unto themselves, but join the story of baker-turned-company cook Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendship with Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) as they venture to survive in the adverse, unknown environment.
Reichardt pays close attention to the quotidian, noting the basic struggles that faced those who participated in Western expansion and capitalism. As Figowitz navigates the seemingly simple tasks of buying new pairs of boots and food, Reichardt gives these actions the same lighting, framework and screen time as more poignant scenes of the surrounding wilderness or other points of action.
Figowitz’s life is changed with the introduction of a cow to the territory, and through syphoning milk from her at night, he finds a mode of economic survival through producing baked goods that gain attention, even from the cow’s wealthy owner. The cow appears on a wooden barge pushed by a lone figure down a serene river. She presents herself almost as a beacon of privilege, signifying private property that’s inaccessible to Figowitz. It is perhaps this yearning for success in the New World that prompts Figowitz to steal the milk, against his morals, and use his skill set to make his mark, however small, on this unfamiliar domain.
Interlaced within the plot, Reichardt navigates the conflict between private property and economic positioning within the new world through Figowitz’s social standing and persistence against becoming obsolete. The space of the New World, in all of its liminality, appears to provide opportunities for success. As seen with Figowitz’s narrative, however, the capitalist superstructures of the Old World follow him into the New World.
The bleakness of it all effortlessly coalesces within Figowitz’s appearance and character; his mud-covered boots, torn jackets and scruffy beard do not lend themselves to the image of a rough and rugged adventurer, but rather to an image of a tired and downtrodden pawn in the larger scheme of Western movement.
Figowitz’s situation alienates him from all that is familiar. Even though the social hierarchies and capitalist economics of the Old World have replicated themselves in the New World, there is no room for him to partake in the success that others find — he must forge his own. Reichardt’s reprieve to Figowitz’s natal alienation, however, is through his friendship with Lu. The film presents itself as a love story between the two, a story of genuine, unpretentious brotherhood. Figowitz and Lu both find themselves as “others” in their new home, facing off against their harsh environment and a brutal, bureaucratic society. As the two unlikely comrades join together, they are able to have a taste of the idealized life, encouraging each other’s fantasy of the unattainable Manifest Destiny dream.
“First Cow” encapsulates simplicity in its study of humans’ interactions with their surroundings, animals and each other. Its understated aesthetic does not ask for much, but rather calls for reflection on raw and humble emotions.
Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].