Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow opens with a discovery. A woman walking her dog along the woods unearths two skeletons lying side by side, then proceeds to tell us the story of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee).
Cookie is a cook traveling with a pack of fur trappers. He meets King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant, while scavenging for the pack’s meal. King-Lu is on the run from a bunch of Russians who killed his friend. Cookie offers him food, a blanket, and a place in his tent after. Eventually they part before Cookie and his pack arrives at Fort Tillicum, where he receives his pay and parts with the fur trappers. He meets King-Lu again and the friendship deepens.
King-Lu invites Cookie into his small home, where an immediate synchronicity develops. As King-Lu picks wood for the fire, Cookie sweeps the floor. Afterwards they toast, and Cookie begins to find his place beside King-Lu. They share dreams of their own: King-Lu wants a farm, Cookie, a hotel and a bakery. These aren’t impossible dreams, but as King-Lu puts it, “It’s the getting started, that’s the puzzle. No way for a poor man to start.” A stark reminder of their class position in their small community. “You need capital or some kind of miracle. You need leverage. Or a crime.” In many ways, King-Lu and Cookie, both strangers, share similar struggles and dreams. It isn’t until their paths cross that they realize the possibility of such dreams coming true with each other’s presence.
This is where Evie (the Cow) comes in. Evie, the first milking cow in the area, is of royal breed, purchased by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones). With Evie, King-Lu and Cookie begin making oily cakes. It sells well and they earn enough money to save up for their plans to go South.
First Cow is a love and folk story. It’s finding someone along the same path knowing nothing but to give comfort and a place of being. In a film whose violence is palpable, Reichardt instead focuses on the tenderness of Cookie and King-Lu’s relationship. It’s wonderful to see our lead male protagonists exchanging soft spoken encouragements and debates about economies and dreams. Such a relationship can be seen through a queer lens when King-Lu realizes that he cannot abandon Cookie. As soon as Cookie starts living with King-Lu, they are inseparable; never seeing one without the other looking over. He lies next to him, succumbing to a sleep we will never know of.
Reichardt doesn’t hold back in telling stories with great depth and critique. It’s her patience and tenderness in showing us these stories that make her films sublime. Each frame is lusciously abundant; able to create magnitude and intimacy that makes the narrative visually compelling. Even without the characters, Reichardt lets the space tells its own story in its own contemplative way.
Here, she dissects the American dream in the eyes of the peasants and workers. It’s a possibility only to the ruling class, who benefits from the labor of indigenous communities. For everyone else, it’s a transaction, a hustle, a bargain that comes at a heavy cost. It’s a never-ending race that eventually ends in a common tragedy. Yet, there’s a sense of being in the community despite the tired sighs and occasional fights. The people trust one another to look after their babies, to bargain with one another, to make jokes and tell stories. There’s a sense of tenderness that we see not just with Kung-Lu and Cookie, but extends back to the animals; including Evie, the first milking cow in the place. Maybe the real dream is taking care of one another and all that the world provides us. It is finding security and being besides a companion.
First Cow is exquisite in showing us the American dream as nothing but a bone for the Earth to swallow; beyond that dream are stories of humanity, waiting to be discovered again.