Milk and honey: First Cow (2019)

Celebrating Women’s Day, try to remember at least a dozen female directors. It’s probably not going to be an easy task for most of us – injustice still happening today. If you want to make a change, then a poignant but rousing feature First Cow (2019) by Kelly Reichardt might be the right start. Be warned – it might not be everybody’s cup of tea; it does evolve around a cup of milk, after all.

King Lu: What I’m saying is history isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time around we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.

Unlike Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2022), a gut-wrenching documentary that I’m too emotional to watch until the bitter end, this one hits you as hard, but it seems less painful. I must admit, it is not a slow burner that comes to an explosive point. It does not burn, it lingers. It has its pace, the unhurried yet cumbersome daily rhythm of the lives of poor people seeking fortune back in 1820. Immigrants, fur trappers, gold diggers, and one skilled cook. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, a quiet chef harassed by fellow trappers, meets King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant accused of killing a Russian man. Lu finds Cookie babysitting an infant during a bar fight and invites him to his house. House or more like a pile of sticks. They both have their dreams. Cookie wants to open a bakery. Maybe a hotel, who knows? Lu thinks about starting a farm. If there’s one thing connecting all those poor souls, that’s hope.

Cookie Figowitz: My momma died when I was born. Then my daddy died. I had to move on to find work. Never stopped moving.

Reichardt contrasts the vastness of green nature with man-made crumbling shacks and muddy outposts.

The outpost is filthy and grimy. Anything goes. People trade bonds, jewels, and gold. You can see some mushrooms on sale at the drab flea market. A scatter of beads here, some clams there. Surrounded by mire, a man could just dream of grandma’s pie on the windowsill. But there’s just water and flour. Or water and mud, and that’s all there is. Cookie and Lu find out that the outpost’s first dairy cow has been brought to the plot of the wealthiest English trader in the county. And she’s unattended at night. With Cookie’s expertise, they start stealing her milk daily in order to make ‘oily cookies’, which taste great because of milk and honey. And it works as a metaphor as well.

Framing of the characters sometimes separates them, and sometimes brings them together in various ways.

Man: This ain’t a place for cows. God would’ve put cows here if it was.
Llloyd: No place for white men either then.

Reichardt frames the film perfectly giving you the ending from the start. But it felt only hinted and I seemed to forget about it until the perfect moment when you know it all made sense and why it did. I salute Reichardt for her framing choice since it works without unnecessary explanations. After all, the driving force of this film is not the plot at all. Like my favorite The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), it is once again a story about friendship. Cookie and Lu mix their belongings in their ramshackle shed. The poor man cannot start on his own, emphasizes Lu. They need a miracle. Or a crime. Cookie stares at the cow, her coat shining in the sun. She’s a glorious creature. He talks to her. Her children and mate died. Cookie whispers sweetly to the cow while the moon blankets them. She is also providing an act of kindness.

Reichardt often uses darkness to increase the invigorating tension and to portray the overwhelming gloominess of life back then.

Cookie: Some people can’t imagine being stolen from. They’re too strong.

Reichardt tells the story of false senses of pride, of people living in superficial communities full of mutual distrust. But sometimes these isolated acts of kindness provide hope there’s more to life than this. The film is evocative and naturalistic, similar to other works of hers. Oregon outpost wasn’t a place for women even though I’m sure strong female characters could shine as well. I see it as a certain companion feature to a film from the same year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) by Céline Sciamma, where female relationships are developed in a world seemingly devoid of male presence, while First Cow does the opposite.

First cow, with light shining upon her, transforming her into a godlike creature.

Reichardt is the master of subtle quietness. As an editor of all her movies, bringing to mind Kurosawa’s meticulousness, she created a comfortable yet captivating chain of shots. The dairy cow was depicted in all its glory on a boat in the middle of a river, standing proud like Ozymandias. Shots of endless sceneries and the depth of greenness of nature are contrasted with mud and dirt surrounding rickety shelters and broken-down cabins. I was astounded by how dark this film is. There’s only the moon shedding light on both crime and love. All of the dimness contributes to the film’s deep poignancy. Sometimes unearthing old skeletons isn’t a bad thing. And one may never know that bones before him belonged to someone kind. But one can hope.

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