Milk it: ‘First Cow’

By Anwen Crawford
Kelly Reichardt’s restrained frontier film considers the uneasy problems of money and resources

Still from First Cow

The place is Oregon Territory, jointly occupied by the British and American governments; the year is 1820. Fur trappers and sundry other pillagers are at large on Chinook lands. One night, while out foraging for mushrooms, a softly spoken baker named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), unhappily attached as a cook to a party of trappers, encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a man from northern China who has wended his way to Oregon via San Francisco. Lu readily admits that he’s on the run after having killed another man, and Cookie, unruffled by the confession, hides the felon in his tent. The next morning, Cookie watches from inside the tent as Lu departs across the river.

These point-of-view shots from inside to outside recur throughout First Cow. The film is Melbourne International Film Festival’s opening night feature (virtually, of course), and is directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose body of work constitutes a patient and subtle examination of the ways in which economics and nationhood are felt in daily life. The time during which First Cow is set is too early in the history of the United States for anything like a coherent national identity to have been formed, and so the questions posed by Reichardt’s inside-to-outside shots – questions of who belongs and who doesn’t, and who or what might be a threat – can’t be answered definitively. That’s the way Reichardt likes it. Her films, most of which are set in Oregon, are memorable for what they don’t resolve, which might also be what can’t be resolved without the world she observes being turned upside down: problems of money and resources – material, emotional – and how people damaged by the lack of them keep living, or not; how we are to go on living. Questions that beget more questions.  

Shortly after their encounter by the river, Cookie and Lu meet again in the saloon bar at Fort Tillicum, a trading outpost. Lu invites Cookie back to his hut to share a bottle of whisky, and a tentative friendship is born, along with a daring business plan. Among the log huts, fiddle players, drunks, dogs and chickens of the settlement there has arrived a most outstanding prize: the titular cow, the possession of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a mercantile who doubles as the governor. First cow, russet and serene, steps off the river barge that brings her to the colony like she’s stepping out of a John Constable painting – a little piece of England transported. Some invaders are a picture. It only remains for Lu and Cookie to steal her milk from under Factor’s nose, start baking and reap the profit.

With the beaver trappers and their leathers, the saloon sharks and their drink, the guns, the river barges, et cetera, First Cow threatens, at least at first, to become a full-scale Western. But full-scale anything would be out of kilter for Reichardt, whose eight feature films have proved her to be master of formal restraint and tonal understatement. Her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, which followed a wagon train through Oregon’s high desert circa 1845, was atmospherically parched, in keeping with that austere country, but the deep-green fecundity of First Cow – all river ferns and water – allows for a richer, wryer feeling. “History isn’t here yet,” declares Lu to Cookie, as they harvest native fruits, and Reichardt lets the complicated irony of statements like that stand, without trying to distil them.

Nothing here is simple – alliances are constantly shifting. Chief Factor’s wife is a Chinookan woman, and the marriage is clearly one of diplomacy, with the unnamed wife, played by Lily Gladstone, translating conversations between the English-speaking colonists and the Chinookans. The latter wonder why fur trappers are killing the beavers without at least eating their tails. When Chief Factor leaves the room, his wife chats merrily in Chinuk Wawa with a woman friend, or perhaps a relation: it’s a tiny scene, but it conveys a complex world.

The pair is Reichardt’s favoured dramatic relationship – two ageing indie rockers out for a walk in the Oregon woods (Old Joy, 2006), an impoverished young woman and her dog trying to make it to Alaska (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) – because the pair demonstrates social relations in miniature: cooperation, bargaining, conflict and companionship, and not just between humans. The guarded Cookie warms gradually to Lu but is most friendly with the cow, bestowing her compliments and courtesies while he milks her in the night. At their daytime stall in the settlement, Lu runs the sales patter while Cookie makes what proves to be their hit product, oily cakes – oliekoek in the Dutch – a prototype doughnut. Theirs is a successful business partnership, but whether the bond between them can transcend commerce is another question Reichardt leaves open.

The whole historical narrative is framed by a contemporary scene of a woman and her dog out walking, which, even in its brevity, makes clear the continuities between past and present. Oil tankers ply the river now, in place of barges. There are many crimes depicted or alluded to in First Cow, but at the centre is the crime of private property. “Capital!” exclaims Chief Factor, when Lu and Cookie promise him an oily cake. Quite.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Still from First Cow

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