First Cow

First Cow

I like to think Kelly Reichardt just got fed up about hearing that bit about capitalism and two cows (it is and has always been illogical), and decided to set the record straight for a cow being a metaphor for capitalism’s rigors: cow-pitalism, tbh. 

I thought about McCabe and Mrs. Miller the entire time, and how this film is a gigantic antidote to the sour lack of faith in people Robert Altman, who I love, gives that one. Reichardt finds much, much more humanity in the West, even if she finds the setting just as rigid and unforgiving as Altman did. Sure, there are heathens aplenty, but how refreshing to see such a tender, caring male friendship (more of this, please and urgently) light a way through such a dark word. The economic commentary plows through, who you are inside never will matter much in this system if your pockets are empty and stature unable to reach the top shelf, and it’s just kind of maddening to think that gentle virtue and genuine skill really just aren’t always enough to secure a good life for someone so deserving of one.

John Magaro is outstanding here, packing years of sorrow on his back through his worn down eyes and a lifetime’s worth of kind-hearted decency and child-like timidity in his actions and voice. Only when he’s forced to steal milk from the rich dude’s cow do you ever see his eyes widen, as even a good soul like his will play the game if it means a chance at a better life. Orion Lee is also really dang great here as the more formal, practical goodness of the friendship as King-Lu, a victim of racism who comes in tow with all the morality you could ask of someone in such a hard time in history. These two are just fantastic together, Reichardt bets everything on these two as the conduit for empathy even the harshest of climates, and her bet pays off in spades. 

The film envelops you. It’s not very assuming at first but it’s fiercely perceptive. You see the desperation even the best of us face to keep the American Dream going, to hope for “the better life.” Capitalism is exactly what you make it, and sadly, stories like First Cow show your its flaws tenfold. This is such a deeply American story, one told so lovingly for those in its crosshairs. Can nice people find their way if they aren’t organically positioned to? It’s possible since anything’s hypothetically possible, but why must we demand it? 

This one will very quietly rip your heart out. It just lingers in beauty; it’s a simple film about very complex emotions and ideas. It’s one of the definitive films of 2020, and a deeply wise and great one to boot. As badly as I wanted to see this in a theater, this’ll do. One of my favorites for certain for the year. Also heck yeah, William Tyler! Nashville guy done good! 

The two cows thing should go like this. Capitalism: You have two cows that you probably inherited from your parents. You sell one and buy a bull, and then get mad when the people in your community who don’t have a cow need to have the government give them a glass of milk, so you vote for people who run on a platform promising you no taxes on the bull you just bought with the cow you, in spirit, really didn’t “earn” since you, by and large, are just a product of a system that economically favored you over someone else. Your ideas, if you feel those without are undeserving of any sort of humanity via basic assistance, are bull.

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