The Western, as a genre, is an almost exclusively masculine fantasy. Set in a world forged with violence through gritted teeth with no room for emotion or kindness. Its iconography rests on the shoulders of lone gunslingers like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, men of stoic anger who do what is necessary, especially when it requires getting their hands dirty. But the conquering of the west is another story altogether, one that has lately become a fascination for revisionists interested in the origins of American culture. Such explorations into the frontier are also inherently tied into studies of masculinity itself, which is where Kelly Reichardt’s masterful FIRST COW finds it’s place.
Set on the Oregon Trail in the 1820s, FIRST COW is the story of Cookie and King-Lu, two gentle and kind, if opportunistic men uncomfortable in the society growing around them. Cookie is the chef for a trapper group making their way west, while King is on the run after killing a man in self-defense. They become unlikely friends out of an act of kindness and soon find each other in the only settlement for miles around, which is also the home to the first and only cow in the territory.
Said cow belongs to a wealthy Englishman with the only proper house in the territory, who plans to use its milk for his tea. Cookie, an accomplished chef, and King-Lu develop a plan: what if they milk the cow at night to make treats to sell? That way, they could save up money and head to San Francisco, where they plan on opening a hotel together.
A lot of what happens next is easy to guess, and FIRST COW doesn’t try dazzling with plot twists or outlandish developments. It’s more interested in depicting a mood or a piece of time and place rather than story, and in doing so, tells a fable of its own. Like David Milch’s grand epoch, DEADWOOD, FIRST COW is the story about the birth of American reality, before those in power sold it as a dream.
The men, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee, stand out not because of virtue – they are, after all, thieves – but by kindness. They respect nature, which comes out with Cookie bonding with the imprisoned cow or King-Lu finding napping spots anywhere in the world. Compared to the others on the frontier, obsessed with possessing things, the duo considers first what they can do to make things, if not better, more comfortable for others. Even when Chief Factor, whose cow they’re stealing from, hovers over them, Cookie can’t help but smile when Factor wistfully declares his cakes “taste like London.”
Reichardt weaves in her societal criticism poignantly through dialog, like when King-Lu and Cookie milk the cow in the late hours of the night. King-Lu ponders how everywhere else feels occupied already, but America remains untouched. Cookie can’t help but wonder, “feels plenty touched to me.” But there is optimism in King-Lu’s vision; maybe they have arrived at a time between chapters. “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe we can take it in on our terms.”
Like everyone else, they’re displaced millionaires out looking for their fortunes.
There’s a tenderness in how Reichardt depicts the trials and victories for the two hapless heroes, neither made for such a hostile world. Their friendship isn’t agreed upon, just something always destined to happen. As they silently make their way to King-Lu’s cabin, the duo finds each solace with one another for the first time, comfortably taking part in making things feel like home. Reichardt allows these scenes to play out with care, and the results are heartwarming. They have an element of Satyajit Ray’s films, where people communicate grand emotions through small gestures.
That, in essence, is what Reichardt’s film beautifully captures: elegant minimalism. An origin story of society told through the friendship of working-class immigrants. The hands that built America, but were never lucky enough to own a piece of it themselves, eventually returning to the land they tilled. Often alone, but sometimes, with luck, together.