First Cow

First Cow ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper at the American Historical Association titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner argued that the essence of America was found not in the old societies of the Atlantic seaboard but rather in the ever-advancing frontier of westward settlement. He argued that America was constantly being redefined on the frontier as the new settlements of the West emerged in an atmosphere of fierce individualism. Further, the frontier was a place where the social and cultural conventions of the ‘old’ world of the Atlantic seaboard broke down – settlers were stripped of their civilized veneer and reshaped as they struggled to survive. For Turner, the frontier was a place of rugged individualism, egalitarianism and democratic renewal. Turner ignored the fact that this advance of the Western frontier brought with it Native America dispossession and genocide; that the advance of the western frontier in the south brought slavery for African Americans; and that the frontier was not just a male space (he ignores women). Nonetheless, it was a seductive idea in the late 19th century that accomplished something very few professional historians manage to achieve – his idea was embraced by the public and became an essential feature of how many Americans viewed ‘the West.’ Thus, while academics have long since abandoned Turner’s ideas, this vision of the frontier as full of rugged, masculine individualists still resonates in popular discourse among those who want to embrace a simplistic vision of American nationalism and identity.

FIRST COW is a brilliant film that accomplishes many things – for me, foremost among them is a devastating and comprehensive deconstruction of the frontier myth. The rugged individualism of the frontier in FIRST COW manifests as a destructive force – men who engage in perpetual dick-measuring contests and fight at the drop of a hat. This is true of the fur traders and true of the Chief Factor, who wants nothing more than to ‘humiliate’ a perceived rival. There is nothing constructive going on here. FIRST COW’s frontier is simply a space for the expression of the male id – drinking, gambling, fighting, narcissism. Turner saw the frontier as a space where democratic institutions would emerge, but FIRST COW shows us the sort of world that Turner implicitly idolized. It’s a nasty, ugly place. A society might emerge here, but it will do so against its will.

What makes FIRST COW special is that Reichardt gives us a pair of characters who go against the grain. King Lu is a Chinese immigrant and world traveller trying desperately to make his way in West. He’s a bit of a dreamer who has grand ambitions. He also has a chip on his shoulder and after a second viewing, I think it is this chip that ultimately sets the stage for his downfall (more on that later). The second character is Cookie, the most beautiful, nuanced male character put to film in a long time. He’s more grounded than King – he’s ambitious, but his ambitions are more modest. He apprenticed as a baker when he was younger and he just wants to open a hotel and bakery. He is very out of place on the frontier – anyone who has been bullied as a child or teenager immediately relates to Cookie’s sense of constant dread about his surroundings. He is essentially a representation of domesticity on the frontier. In 99.9% of films, especially westerns, this force is represented by a woman. Reichardt turns these gender assumptions on their head. Cookie looks after a baby. He bakes. He gathers berries. When he first goes back to King’s cabin, he picks up a broom and starts sweeping. Between this film and OLD JOY, Reichardt has emerged as the greatest chronicler of radical masculinity in contemporary cinema – radical in that it completely overturns existing assumptions about gender norms. She shows us the violent narcissism of traditional masculinity but also the kind, gentle vision represented by Cookie (and to some extent, King). I noticed on second viewing that she refuses to dignify the former – every time a fight breaks out, the camera follows Cookie as he leaves the scene or otherwise avoids the fight.

This deconstruction of masculinity would be enough on its own to make this a five-star film, but Reichardt also offers a powerful critique of capitalism on the frontier. Once again, the film shows the bankruptcy of the Turner vision of the frontier as an egalitarian land. If there is money to be made, monopoly capitalism will beat you to it. In 1820s Oregon it takes the form of a fur trade company which I assume is supposed to be a stand-in for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC basically took over the British fur trade after its merger with the Northwest Company in 1821 – this could be an American fur trade company, but the English factor and Scottish workforce strongly suggest the HBC (open to correction if anyone knows better – I don’t know much about the trade in Oregon outside of the HBC in this period). In any event, the wealth disparity is represented by the Chief Factor, played wonderfully by Toby Jones. He imports a cow for his own personal use (cream in his tea). The cow, which should be a symbol of domesticity and the advance of agriculture, is instead rendered as a crass status symbol, something that the Chief Factor can lord over everyone else. He can show it off to visitors, he can monopolize cream for his tea. Cookie and King develop a plan to steal milk from the cow on a nightly basis to make ‘oily cakes’ (deep-fried batter concoctions that look delicious). It’s a terrible risk because the Chief Factor has unchecked power and authority. He’s a dictator, an absolute monarch. Reichardt understands fully the historiography of fur trade forts that shows them to be ‘sites of terror,’ where the Chief Factor was free to inflict whatever punishment he sees fit. This is brought home in the Chief Factor’s discussion with the ship captain where they discuss how many lashes are appropriate for a disobedient worker – the Factor notes that beatings are an outstanding “spectacle for the indolent” to motivate them to work harder. Ultimately, when Cookie and King are inevitably discovered and hunted down for punishment, they are facing the death penalty if caught. They probably ‘stole’ two or three litres of milk in total and they are sentenced to death for it. Still think the frontier is egalitarian?

This, ultimately, is something that is well understood by Cookie and King. They are discussing their plans and hopes for the future, and King hits the nail on the head – he says “to get started out here, you need capital. You need a miracle or…a crime.” There is no room for social and economic advancement on the frontier, the so-called ‘land of opportunity.’ It is as fixed as a feudal European society. If you want to get ahead, you need to steal (leaving aside the fact that what they do isn’t really stealing), you need to take personal risk. This entire enterprise, the fur trade, is of course based on theft, based on the harvesting of natural resources from Native American land and destroying the ecosystem (the HBC actively sought to trap fur-bearing animals into extinction in this territory in the 1830s to try and keep Americans out of the territory, which was jointly administered by Britain and the US until 1846).

Ultimately it is the defiance of this social order that leads to the pair’s downfall. I don’t think it is greed that pushes them too far, I think it is defiance. One of the most understated aspects of the film is the racism faced by King Lu. It’s there in the sideways glances and dirty looks that he gets from most everyone at the fort. He even acknowledges it and weaponizes it hilariously when one of the customers asks what is in the cakes – not wanting to give away that they are using milk, Kings says “secret ingredient…ancient Chinese secret.” Immediately the cakes are turned into something mystical instead of the obvious (it’s milk, fuckwits). But in the Chief Factor’s house, King is treated with overt disrespect. He speaks out of turn and the Chief Factor and naval officer stare at him as if he has spoken out of turn and committed some sort of social faux pas simply by offering his opinion. That night, Cookie wants to call off the nightly milk theft but King, unusually agitated, insists that they go forward. He mocks the Chief Factor’s pretentions and refinement. “What kind of woman is he?” King barks, echoing the exact same statement made by one of the fur traders earlier in the film. He’s lost his cool, he’s lost his analytical edge – he’s now engaged in the dick-measuring and wants to prove the Chief Factor a fool. It’s a tragic misstep.

There is so much more to talk about. The production design is incredible. The shantytown outside the fort walls is brilliantly conceived. Reichardt manages to include all elements of the 1820s fur trade in this world, including Russian traders and Hawaiian workers. She uses indigenous actors speaking in their own language to remind us that this was not empty, unoccupied space when the fur trade moved in. He shows that the Chief Factor has married a Native American woman (played by Lily Gladstone), and the film gives us the briefest of glances into her world as she is shown talking with the wife of the local Chief. I badly want Reichardt to return to this world except to set the next film in the Chief Factor’s house and focus on Gladstone’s character – she is such a wonderful actress. The cinematography is incredible, the performances are beautiful, Reichardt is a genius. It’s a perfect film.

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