First Cow

First Cow ★★★★

[73]

”When one factors the loss of labor from the punished hand versus the gain in labor from those hands who witnessed the punishment, a stricter punishment can be the more advisable path. Even a properly rendered death can be useful under the proper accounting; it is a highly motivating spectacle for the indolent, let alone the mutinous.”

—Chief Factor, FIRST COW

”There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”

—General Broulard, PATHS OF GLORY

Not a ton of overlap between this frontier western and Kubrick’s court-martial procedural, but Reichardt’s inclusion of that line of dialogue was deliberate, meant to highlight an equally frightening sentiment: In the eyes of those with substantial wealth and power, human life is merely a commodity—a form of currency through which transactions of fear and motivation are made. Kubrick was demonstrating the brutality buried within the hierarchical structuring of military—and to a larger degree, one could argue, political—regimes and how blind systemic adherence can and often does trump humanism in the name of preserving the status quo. Trying to discern exactly to which institution Reichardt was nose-thumbing, my initial and obvious answer was capitalism. “Why didn’t she call this THERE WILL BE MILK?” I wondered. In retrospect, however, the extent to which FIRST COW functions as a legitimate criticism—or advocacy, for that matter—of private enterprise, capitalism, liberalism, or any sociopolitical ideology is infinitesimal at best, and accidental at worst. When Cookie and Lu are selling their first batch of oily cakes, the free market angle is painfully transcribed to text: There’s a blatant bidding war for the last pastry and if this were a silent film, I’d have expected a title card to pop up and tell me ”The birth of capitalism in Oregon!” Perhaps even worse, during one of their next ventures, a random man in the background yowls, ”Make more next time!” to which another disgruntled patron replies, ”They wanna keep them prices up, they ain’t dumb.” Again I felt like I was attending an Explain Like I’m Five lecture on capitalism and macroeconomics—“Supply and demand!” she shouted from the hilltop—which is too forthright an approach for someone like Kelly Reichardt.

Outside of that, a few other mentions of business ventures (Cookie wants to own a hotel; Lu briefly talks about the money to made in beaver oil glands—neither of them is anything doing), and the word “capital” being used twice (one of those utterances a synonym for splendid), I was having one hell of a time figuring Reichardt’s stance or understanding what, if anything, she was trying to tell us. It reminded me of FIRST REFORMED and the way I adamantly questioned Schrader’s inclusion of environmental decay right up until the film’s final few scenes, where it hit me like a ton of bricks that hardcore environmentalism was only a domain for the narrative to exist; one that lends a few specificities but is ultimately in service of another more prominent theme. In that case, it was one man’s internal struggle of faith and the doctrines therein. And that’s when it dawned on me; suddenly I drew a parallel between the ham-handed oily cake auction and the equally point-blank scenes of Reverend Toller visiting a worrymonger whose house is plastered with heat maps and ozone charts and, later on, his awkward visit to a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant. Reichardt wasn’t making a Film About Capitalism, nor was she voicing any appropriate posture on one system or another, nor was she commenting on the Robinhood nature of success as it at one point seems (take big risks, steal from the rich, leverage and crime are necessary components of capital, etc.); she was using the joint business venture of Cookie and Lu to craft a goddamn buddy film. And I can’t articulate how warm that realization felt as it finally washed over me. One can—and many have and likely will continue to—graft this as e.g. FILM CAPITALISME, but if that’s the only rubric by which its quality is measured, then it is an utter and total failure.

As a meticulously detailed and beautifully time-sensitive* anecdote of improbable male bonding, on the other hand, it’s great, and it resides much more comfortably in the wheelhouse of Reichardt’s unrelenting serenity. (It should’ve struck me earlier, I supposed, considering the opening title card is a proverb about friendship, but by the time Figowitz is gathering mushrooms along the forest floor, I’d mostly forgotten about that.) She constructs her films not with huge moments and dramatic signposts, but with an onslaught of grace notes and sundries; the result is often soothing, even amid points of duress. The smirk on Cookie’s face when he nets a huge sockeye; the sheepish unveiling of his blueberry clafoutis; the nervous jitter in his hands as he lacquers Factor’s oily cake with honey and grinds a cinnamon stick above it; the way he almost ceremoniously starts sweeping the floor of Lu’s home upon arrival; Lu’s imperfect technique for splitting firewood; the blank stare of a newborn baby, left atop an empty bar, whose father is currently fist fighting another patron outside; the hefty slosh of fresh milk in a wooden bucket as a young Native American girl walks it out of the barn—that is to say, I lost count of how many entirely insignificant details stuck vividly in my mind’s eye long after they’d occurred. Reichardt has a gift for making the mundane enthralling and the quaint period details of the early nineteenth century play naturally to her strengths as a director primarily of routine particulars. (Let it be known, too, that my affinity for this milieu is alive and well—it’s no coincidence that this and MEEK’S CUTOFF are not only my two favorite films of hers but what I believe to be the two greatest showcases of this sort of elemental hypnotism at which she excels.)

There are, to my mind, a few missteps—none of them fatal, but altogether responsible for a flawed experience. Reichardt has never shied away from darkness; it plagued the second half of NIGHT MOVES and was used to stunning effect in MEEK’S CUTOFF. Here, its presence is meaningful but excessive. When Cookie first encounters Lu, for example, I can understand the obfuscation of clarity—we, the audience, don’t know who Lu is at that point, either; reducing their initial conversation to strictly audible perception is apt. Every scene thereafter that occurs at night is equally indiscernible; there’s a nascent poeticism to the way Cookie talks to the cow as he’s stealing her milk, but it’s a guise that quickly becomes enervating and counterproductive as the time spent staring at a mostly black screen steadily increases. During the film’s lone confrontation—its one and only “action sequence,” if you will—I may as well have had my eyes closed; it can be pieced together by the sharp crack of a branch, lots of rustling foliage, and a loud thud, but at one point I swore I was watching THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The graininess occasionally gets distracting, the sound mixing is suboptimal (several times I was unsure if the voices I was hearing were coming from the characters onscreen or somewhere off in the background), and the genteel Gander Mountain soundtrack is awkwardly idyllic in too artificially suggestive a way. (I tried to imagine how this would’ve fared with no music at all. It improves.) A lot of these nits are admittedly magnified when scrutinized against surgical precision Reichardt normally employs; but the good outweighs the bad by a landslide, and many of my issues evaporated at the bittersweet closing tableaux, denoting the perseverance of humanity, even against an empire as tremendous as…well, capitalism, I guess.

*The only anachronism that caught me was Cookie’s use of the term “baking soda.” Sodium bicarbonate and various forms of leavening agents were available in that era, but the phrase “baking soda” wasn’t coined until 1846 from what I can find. If anything, they’d have called it “soda ash.” Totally broke my immersion and ruined the movie for me. (Just kidding…obviously.)

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