Song of Nature
by A. G. Sims
Dir. Kelly Reichardt, U.S., A24
Kelly Reichardt makes the kinds of films that have the power to transport you to a personal place or a different, lost rhythm of life. Her latest film, First Cow, immediately evoked for me the time I spent on my grandparentsâ€™ farm as a kid, in the southern Arkansas timberlands, wreaking childish havoc on their cows. They werenâ€™t really remarkable cows, but they werenâ€™t unremarkable either. They could be fetched by my granddadâ€™s calls when it was time to eat, which I thought was pretty special. And they would walk right up to the fence, just within reach to pet like a large dog. During the summers, while the cows drank from one end of the lake, on the other Iâ€™d crack the waterâ€™s glassy stillness with a shotgun, aiming for the snakes that would creep up on my grandmotherâ€™s geeseâ€”and the sound of the blast would send hooves shuffling every which way. While they grazed the fields, I rode my four-wheeler in circles around them. Over time I developed an earnest, farmerâ€™s appreciation for their grace and their capacity to sustain life.
Reichardtâ€™s latest film, First Cow, is rooted in a similar revelation, at the arrival of the first milking cow to a young settlement on the Oregon frontier in the mid 19th century. Adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymondâ€™s 2005 book The Half-Life, the movie begins with a novelistic prologue that sets the plot in motion and foreshadows its conclusion. The film opens in the present day with a shot of a cargo ship crawling across the screen. A woman (Alia Shawkat) and dog scavenging the shore stumble upon a human skull. After some digging, they discover two skeletons lying side by side.
Later in the movie, but much earlier in time, precious cargo travels again to port, but now thereâ€™s no welded steel or air-polluting plumes of smoke. One misty morning, a bony, chestnut-colored cow floats downstream via river raft, nearing the end of her voyage from San Francisco. Native people bunched at the shore look up from their chores, resting their busy hands. The lush green and yellow trees lining her path seem to stand straighter on her arrival, the blue sky deepens and the mist parts. This cow becomes the central source of conflict in First Cow, when two lonely travelers decide to use it in an illicit business venture. With her grand entrance, Reichardt brings the viewer face to face with something of a higher order, gently furthering a lofty, poetic thesis sheâ€™s wrestled with over the course of her career: that a spiritual hierarchy of nature might supersede our manmade one.
The cow, deriving her gifts solely from our bountiful earth, is just as mighty as the sea vessel, Reichardt suggests in the movieâ€™s title moment, using shot symmetry to call back to the opening scene. This juxtaposition connects the film to Reichardtâ€™s other work, which also explores themes about humanity, and how we understand our duties to our fellow humans and the natural world. First Cow deepens Reichardtâ€™s topographical study of the Pacific Northwest with well-researched period details while exploring timeless questions about how we form community in American life.
At its core, though, First Cow is a well-paced, lighthearted frontier tale about friendship that treads gently around but doesnâ€™t ignore, its politics and moral philosophy. Long before the woman and her dog dug up those skeletons on the shore, that region of Oregon belonged to gold rushers, fur trappers, and other hopeful merchants. After the opening scene, the film jumps backward in time, where the story really begins. Cookie Figowitz (John Magary), a scruffy man with tattered black boots, moves slowly through a clearing in the forest, picking the blossoms off of wildflowers. He is interrupted by a noise that scares him back to camp, where he is the cook, in charge of gathering vittles for a rough and tumble group of trappers. Later that night, Cookie stumbles upon the source of the noise: a naked man in the woods who introduces himself as King Lu (Orion Lee). Heâ€™s on the lam from some Russians, after he offed one of their group. At his own risk, Cookie offers Lu food and shelter and watches over him, protectively, while he sleeps.
With the pairâ€™s introduction, we can quickly guess that these are the sources of the skeletons that will be dug up centuries in the future. This knowledge frees up the viewer to focus on the behavioral attributes of the characters, especially their respective responses to the stresses of life on the frontier. Cookie is from Maryland; his mother died when he was born, and then his father died shortly after. King Lu is from northern China. Over the course of the movie, we see how their individual experiences, which arenâ€™t much fleshed out beyond those basic cutouts, have resulted in different outlooks on life. Cookie never thinks too hard about where his next meal will come from, while King Lu dreams of making a fortune.
These unlikely companions join Old Joyâ€™s Mark and Kurt in Reichardtâ€™s oeuvre of temperamental opposites and would-be loners bonded by their environments, if not to them. Her movies, most of which are set in Oregon, are about characters struggling to pursue their needs and desires in an America thatâ€™s as hardscrabble as it is picturesque. In Wendy and Lucy, the economic precarity of the main characterâ€™s circumstances is pronounced. Here, itâ€™s more abstract. The dreams of Cookie, a sensitive baking savant, and King Lu, a cynical capitalist (Cookie one day hopes to open a hotel for travelers and a bakery; King Lu would like to make money), have already been squelched by circumstances beyond their control. â€śMen like us, Cookie, we have to make our own way,â€ť King Lu says late one night. He instructs: â€śWe have to take what we can when the taking is good.â€ť
The two briefly separate, and when they reunite, in a comedic sequence that brings Cookie to a trading outpost called Fort Tilikum, theyâ€™ve traded fortunes. Cookieâ€™s shaken off his violent troupe and has nowhere to live. King Lu, now clad handsomely, is free from his Russian pursuers. He invites Cookie to stay with him, in his nearby cabin. Cookie and King Lu begin to carry out a domestic life together, Lu chopping firewood and setting squirrel traps and Cookie cleaning the shack. Reichardt shoots this romantically, with her characteristic affinity for menial chores and domestic routine. The pair carry on like this until Cookie stumbles upon the cow in a meadow. He tells King Lu about his discovery, salivating over a fantasy of cookies, scones, and buttermilk biscuits. â€śIâ€™m tired of this flour and water bread,â€ť says Cookie. Of course, Lu sees in this cow a business opportunity. They decide to sneak onto the property of the wealthy British landowner (Toby Jones) who owns the cow and siphon its milk under cloak of night in order to bake goods to sell for coins, shells, and animal teeth at the merchant square.
A story about an idealistic white man, priestlike in his devotion to baking, pushed near the point of exploitation by the persistent, singularly focused Chinese immigrantâ€”a possibly prejudicial depiction of cultural differenceâ€”initially feels a little out of place, even stereotypical, in the context of Reichardtâ€™s filmography. For the most part, race and ethnicity are rendered as less essential than class as an early societal organizer, and itâ€™s easy to see why. Reichardt attempts a tricky balance of acknowledging thorny questions about how indigenous and immigrant cultures adapted to white settlers, while leaving ample room to focus on the simple, primal, and tender relationship that develops between the two men. In Reichardtâ€™s worlds, complicated human bonds are the point.
First Cow is set in the preindustrial era but is still fertile ground for Reichardtâ€™s apprehensions about creeping modernity. She sets her contemporary stories in places where time has already worn down both her settings and her characters. Small towns with strip malls break up dense conifer forests in Certain Women. In Old Joy, Kurt laments to Mark that there is no difference between the city and the wilderness anymore: thereâ€™s trees in the city and garbage in the wild. â€śHistory hasnâ€™t been here yet,â€ť King Lu says to Cookie in First Cow, recalling the ship from the filmâ€™s beginning. The way time seems to move quickly in other parts of the world, like the localsâ€™ references to the changing fads in 19th century French fashion, isnâ€™t true for the American northwest just yet. Thereâ€™s still untapped opportunity. There remains a chance for a scrappy man to win. King Lu continues, â€śMaybe this time we can take it on our own terms.â€ť
The milk thievesâ€™ hustle eventually comes to an end, causing Cookie and King Lu to separate when discovered. Cookie trips, falls, and bumps his head on a tree, knocking him unconscious. He awakes in an unfamiliar cabin. From his bed, he can see out of the window a man silently pushing and pulling the wind with his arms, in graceful shaman-like movements. Reichardt lingers here as if to suggest that even as Cookieâ€™s life hangs in the balance, the danger that awaits him outside exists among inexplicable beauty, that a spirituality exists in nature that is completely agnostic to our personal triumphs and failures.
Although I donâ€™t get down to my familyâ€™s farm much anymore, First Cow took me back to the feeling of being at a place where ordinary elements of nature become something else altogetherâ€”when something like a cow becomes graceful or sacred. Though Reichardtâ€™s movie doesnâ€™t press too hard on spirituality, itâ€™s clear that she sees overwhelming beauty in the vast landscapes of the American northwest and the creatures that inhabit the wild. When Reichardt cuts to an owl blinking in the night, or a woman paddling her canoe with a dog posed at the bow, or a cow traveling by wooden ferry, these scenes become still lifes that highlight Reichardtâ€™s knack for finding transcendence in the everyday.
Reichardtâ€™s hushed visual approach animates the movie into something more contemplative than its sweet, humorous screenplay might indicate. In her films, characters tend to look at things and think. A diegetic bird squaw might fill the silence, or a plucky banjo. In those moments, the object gazed upon becomes imbued with meaning. Reichardtâ€™s perception of time and history suggests that places inherit the messy politics of their pasts. The cargo ship from the opening isnâ€™t just a product of overzealous industrialization. Itâ€™s also a marker of our unsustainable global sprawlâ€”an undesirable solution to the necessity of international trade. It somehow exists, along with the trees, and the buried bones, as a symbol of life and death: a manmade contraption to further humanity; a prelude to our planetâ€™s demise.
Reichardtâ€™s cinema isnâ€™t religious, but it isnâ€™t faithless either. First Cowâ€™s epigraphâ€”â€śThe bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendshipâ€ťâ€”is from a William Blake poem, which was composed to present his own personal Romantic philosophy, about where God has manifested himself in Man. The quote hangs over a film in which the filmmaker has returned to her thematic obsessions, depicting conceptions of Man, nature, and human suffering, indelibly wed to their specific locales. Whether that in itself is her personal allusion to the divine isnâ€™t made clear. But her deference to natural environments, to enduring friendship, or to the beauty of a single animal always feels poetically right, as if she alone knows the exact moment that even a cow achieves the sublime.