Kelly Reichardt’s latest feature First Cow opens on a William Blake quote: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Perhaps the quote is a bit too explicit in its intent — within these words is the entire heart and soul of First Cow. Cookie, played by the heartwarming Joe Magaro, is always on the move. He’s always working for someone else, always trying to find the next trail. The film follows his life in the Oregon Territory — particularly, his plight with another man’s cow.
Cookie meets Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) while he’s gathering food for his tribe. It’s a brief encounter, but it’s a definite one. It’s a human connection worth more than anything Cookie’s had up until this point — which consists of taking orders and being made fun of. He does what he needs to do to survive, until the resourceful King-Lu enters the picture. King-Lu is full of optimistic ideas, which pairs with the Cookie’s listening ears and crafty hands. As the two lay around one night, spitting stories and ideas, as lazy friends often do, Cookie mentions his biscuit-baking abilities. Just as we all would, King-Lu gets a hankering for the delights Cookie describes. Like two buddies on a quest for some midnight snacks, the two set off to steal some cow milk and make the biscuits.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that the moment King Lu and Cookie realise the biscuits’ potential is reminiscent of the bunk beds scene in Step-Brothers — they celebrate each other’s greatness, and suddenly nothing else matters. They will sell the oily biscuits with the stolen milk, like little boys using their mother’s lemonade to generate profit. It’s a simple heist, executed by a highly-entertaining pair of new friends. Their venture into the world of business is so fun to watch, with Cookie as the soft-spoken baker and King Lu as the convincing salesperson. They’re too good — they lure in the wealthiest man in the town, who happens to be the owner of the cow. He loves Cookie’s baking, and doesn’t question where the milk is from. When King Lu worries they might be found out, Cookie reassures him: “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from. Too strong.” From here, the film draws on about capitalism, the upper-class, and the power of resources as it develops their friendship.
Everything in First Cow is quiet and underdone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, the relaxed feeling of the film only allows us to focus on other aspects of it as an entity. There’s not much going on, so there’s room to focus on the unfettered intimacy between Cookie and King Lu. Perhaps even more treasured are the hushed conversations Cookie has with the cow — he wills it to produce milk for him through conversations that feel like uplifting therapy sessions. He apologises for the loss of her mate and for all the moving she’s had to do. Cookie finds himself in the cow; he’s a moving man himself, working under the strong hand of the burgeoning capitalists.
The soundscape, paired with Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography transcend the actual story — some of the film’s finest moments are hidden within empty shots. Some of this becomes tedious, but the result is a new, more holistic experience. Reichardt doesn’t just invite us to watch her masterpiece; she’s inviting us to live in the shoes of Cookie, to hear what he hears, feels what he feels. When the film shows us a boat mulling through the clear waters, we hear water lapping the outer-body of the boat, we see a bird pass overhead. It’s as if we are no longer within the confines of a theatre — we’re watching this from a nearby hill, passing time while waiting for something to do. When we are offered a close-up on Cookie’s dirt-dusted fingertips, we feel the dirt on our own hands. If only we could taste the oily biscuits he bakes!
By the end of the film, Cookie may not have a home. But for a little while, he had a cow to relate to. And now he’s got a friend, which Blake claims is the equivalent of a bird’s nest. A friend feels like home, and King Su is just that for Cookie. Cows change hands, houses collapse, and life is transient — but kinship is always present. Throughout First Cow, it’s easy to assume that King Su will stab Cookie in the back, that he will take the money and run. We don’t know all that much about him. But he doesn’t. He’s in it for the shared spirit of business. Though we may not always have good friends like King Su, nor the quests and business ventures they share, First Cow poses the undying opportunity to find them in the most unexpected corners.
First Cow screened at NYFF on October 3rd
by Fletcher Peters
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram.