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Forget your mantra. Watching First Cow is a form of meditation. The gentle Western by Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) slows down the rhythms of your body until you achieve cinematic nirvana. The first clue is the opening shot, in which a barge enters from the left, floating down a river. We watch it move across the frame for longer than we expect, but its languid pace has a purpose. Reichardt is resetting our internal clocks to a distant time, when attention spans were longer and simple movements were appreciated.
First Cow is the story of a friendship between two outcasts of the Old West. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a mild-mannered cook who makes his living feeding trappers on expeditions to the Pacific Northwest during the Gold Rush. He’s a bit more enlightened than his rough-and-tumble wagonmates. When we first meet him, he is delicately foraging mushrooms. Deep in the forest, he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese traveler on the run from Russians seeking vengeance for an act of violence. The vagaries of international diplomacy mean little in the wild, and the two quickly become friends.
It’s a friendship of convenience—everyone can use a companion in such an unforgiving landscape—but it quickly evolves into a business arrangement. An off-hand comment Cookie makes about wanting to open a bakery in San Francisco sparks King Lu’s imagination. They sneak off in the dead of night to steal milk from the territory’s only cow, owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and fry it into an “oily cake,” which becomes the must-have delicacy at their local market. Gunfighters and farmers alike line up for the chance to sample their wares. Even the Chief Factor himself is enamored with the pastry, telling them that it tastes like London, and he hires them to bake something special for an upcoming visit from a British aristocrat.
The cake seems to transport even the most grizzled customer back to a more vivid time, and the film does the same for us. Reichardt’s frame is composed of empty natural spaces, and her subject is human tenderness, especially in our connection to the natural world. Dogs and chicks are given ample screen time, and Cookie’s affection for the cow whose milk he pilfers is a soothing antidote to the hardness of the world they inhabit. The film even makes sure we know that the cow’s calf died in transport, so they’re not stealing milk meant for her actual offspring. Reichardt’s world is a comforting place, where the worries of the day melt away.
The harmonious vibes are so overpowering that you might miss the burgeoning darkness. Embedded in First Cow is a critique of capitalism every bit as trenchant as that of Parasite, the recent Best Picture winner. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond, working from his novel, portray a multi-tiered system of oppression, in which wealthy landowners such as the Chief hold sway over desperate workers like Cookie and King Lu. And beneath them are the Native Americans whose land is being aggressively co-opted. The Chief has married a Native American woman (Lily Gladstone) and employs several other Indigenous people in his home, keeping his friends close and those he is subjugating even closer. In the world of First Cow, everyone works for the wealthy, who co-opt our dreams in their quest to have just a little bit more, and all we have to soothe our weary souls are confections and companionship. Sometimes, it’s more than enough.
First Cow opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.
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