First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

NOTE: While small plot points are vaguely alluded to, I avoided any spoilers. : )

Cows seem like such passive animals. They have flat, almost blank eyes, and they often seem to graze without ever moving. They are acted upon, used both for their milk and their meat. They are the Giving Tree (TM) of the animal kingdom. 

Kelly Reichardt uses her deliberate-but-never-boring style and the symbolism of the cow to comment on themes such as capitalism, colonization, masculinity, and friendship. Towards the beginning of the film, King-Lu, an entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant, meets Cookie, a chef that has broken off from his hangry group of fur trappers. King-Lu speaks about the Oregon territory, saying, “History hasn’t gotten here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” Later, Chief Factor, a wealthy British landowner that has the only cow in the area, is told by his colonizing capitalist buddy that “History moves quickly in Paris. So quickly, it wears itself out. Never reaches here at all.”

The personification of history turns this into a chase film of sorts. Everyone is searching for the next thing to seize upon, the next resource to exploit for profit. However, there is a clear line drawn between Cookie and King-Lu’s exploitation of the cow, and the aristocrats’s exploitation of natural (and human) resources. When Cookie milks the cow, he speaks to it lovingly. This warmth is reflected in Cookie and King-Lu’s relationship. It didn't seem like they were tempted to betray or take advantage of each other.

On the other hand, the first time we are in the Chief Factor’s house, he is speaking about the effect of brutalizing slaves on profit margin. The human beings and animals he exploits are merely seen as objects, resources to be maximized through any means possible. 

In the end, the friendship of Cookie and King-Lu seems even more organic and intimate juxtaposed with the ruthlessness of the aristocrats. No matter who has a cow about having a cow, Cookie and King-Lu stick together. Kelly Reichardt’s filmography is filled with movies that make powerful statements without feeling heavy-handed. The acting is strong across the board; while Lily Gladstone only has a small role, I was so glad to see her! I hope she gets more film roles, because she’s amazing. This slides in behind Never Rarely Sometimes Always on my best of 2020 list.  Great film!

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