My introduction to Director Kelly Reich was her film Certain Women (2016), an incredibly nuanced depiction of four strong willed women who are all different in character but whom share in a visible and felt struggle to overcome the burden of sexism and oppression. The film brilliantly fuses together three different sources under a singular vision in order to bring these character lines together in one cohesive and masterfully crafted story.
It wasn’t until I saw her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff though, a fascinating and highly contemplative examination of fear and the nature of trust set in the barrenness of the Orgeon trail in 1945, that I really started to appreciate her brilliance. She uses the period setting and the western motif to offer a similarly nuanced perspective on modern, feminist ideals and the racial systems that keep us in bondage to feelings of fear and uncertainty, especially when it comes to embracing the unfamiliar, unforgiving landscaping and the uncertain future. Her ability to use things like space, the natural environment, and silence to her advantage is an incredible gifting that she has demonstrated quite adeptly throughout her career.
Revisiting Oregon: Firs Cow and The Telling of a Universal Story
Her latest film, First Cow, returns us to Oregon, this time set in 1820 and telling a single story adapted from author Jonathan Raymond’s book, The Half Life. Here she continues in stride, making what is one of the best films of 2020 so far in my humble opinion, but also putting together a distinctly universal story about what it means to not only co-exist, but to persist within the trappings of the great American Dream.
In the opening shot, Reichardt features a slow, almost laborious shot of a lone ship trudging down a river. It’s simple, spacious, and basically devoid of surrounding activity. She employs this basic image as a way of anchoring her story in a narrative that transcends time and place, both in the imagery it evokes and in how it provides this central and establishing movement from the present day to the past.
Uncovering The Past And Seeing the Future: Parallels and Portraits of Contrast
This lone boat, which coincides with the proceeding scene where, set in the modern era, two skeletons are uncovered featuring two indistinguishable men whom apparently died side by side. This scene and this uncovering is used to parallel the ensuing arrival of this cow, in the past, which is literally the first cow to arrive to the Oregon settlement as a means of providing milk for the community. The proceeding scenes then introduce us to our two main characters, Cookie, a cook who is trying to make a way for himself amonst the fur traders by cooking meals for them, and King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant fleeing a murder (of a Russian man).
These two parallel scenes, of the ship and the arriving cow, connects the opening imagery of the unearthed skeleton with our working story of these two men coming to find company and comfort and even opportunity in one another, establishing a bond across different paths and through differing journey’s, one looking to escape and move on, the other immersed where he is in his particular ambitions
One of the most striking things about the portrait that Reichhardt creates here through these two working images, one of modernity looking backwards, or uncovering history, and the other looking forward anticipating what lies ahead, is how she imagines it within a landscape of diverse peoples, all coexisting around this single cow. The cow itself stands as a colorful and resonant symbol both of the growing bond between Cookie and King-Lu, but also of the nature of progress, it’s milk providing the means of sustenance, cooperation and care, but also demonstrating the essential image of opportunity, the chance for one to establish ones self and get ahead in the world by using the milk to gain a foothold in a competitive environment. The most interesting part of Cookie’s character, and King-Lu for that matter, is that they both imagine from their individual vantage points sitting beneath the shadow of others, that it is okay, then, given this competitive and unfair environment, to engage in certain activities or make certain choices that will allow them to get ahead. This moral line is crossed somewhat nonchalantly, in a matter of fact way that emulates the daily chore of gathering mushrooms and foods from the forest. This is simply what one needs to do. When the milk belongs to the haves, we must rightly take some of the milk in order to help ourselves gain a foothold, to gain some level of significance in this world and be seen with some respect.
Even more interesting is the fact that Reichardt draws this out within a landscape dotted with all kinds of people, from the settlers, to the Chinese Immigrant to the indigenous peoples. This sense of progress seems to be making its way up through this collage of peoples, providing a compelling picture to carry over into the present day picture of these two indistinguishable skeletons lying side by side. In this sense, the emerging social divide, the essential reality of those on the bottom and those on the top, does not discriminate.
Nature, Human Nature, and the Nature of Relationship
The other thing that emerges in First Cow, or rather reemerges within the Director’s filmmography, is her obvious love of nature. She demonstrates an artistic interest in exploring humanities relationship to nature. In First Cow, the cinematography, utilizing an interesting aspect ratio that leaves plenty of room to apply different angles and close ups, is sharp and distinctive, giving the landscape an almost dreamy gloss, but one that seems to desire to uphold both the beauty of the earth and the rawness of nature’s complex form. It’s not simply that she uses the aspect ratio to bring the natural landscape into focus, it’s that she does so without romanticizing it. In a sense, she is not trying to locate the past in a glorified vision of its time, in its unfiltered and uninhibited optimism. She recognizes that this optimism is complicated and burdened by what we know of the future, and thus she imagines a largely unglorified landscape, but one that still, in some mysterious way, looks otherworldly and dream like at the same time. This allows the red cow, a color that stands out in the mix of imagined visuals and landscape like a reverent or sacred force of nature, to stand as a bit of an unusual but unavoidable symbol within the human drama, drawing attention towards it as things unfold, particularly as we see the story, history, unfolding in its ongoing pursuit of conquest, growth and progress.
Beautifully rendered, gentle in spirit, and patient in telling, this focus on nature in relationship to human progress ultimately leads to a film about the nature of relationship, or the power of friendship, both between a man and a cow (and all it symbolizes), and the two men travelling different paths drawn together by seemingly simple dreams and simple ideas. Paths that uncover this basic and universal human longing and human need to belong, to be seen as something and be taken seriously.
In the social system that we find being developed and uncovered in the film, there are those on top and those on the bottom, with the milk from the cow, the central possession of those on top, providing the means for getting ahead. As the economic machine forging from this opportune milk pushes forward, what becomes clear is that this single cow, in its sustenance and in its giving presence, doesn’t render everyone equal by becoming what is essentially a commodity. This is what makes the bond between man and cow so aware. It speaks to the relationship we have to both need and want, and the relationships this world has to the haves and the have nots of this world. It speaks of the respect we have for that which allows us to get ahead, the essential opportunity afforded to us in our visions and our willingness to act on our allusions of freedom. But it also speaks of the ways in which that commodity becomes utilized, corrupted, and used in ways that uncover the basic human problem- greed and suspicion of those above and those below. Which, in process, becomes the thing that not only that perceivable works to further distinguish between those on the bottom and those on the top, but also between the different peoples that are occupying this shared space by nature of how growth happens and moves forward.
Following in the footsteps of this working economic interest is the ongoing relationship that develops between Cookie and King-Lu. As their actions become exposed and their position in this settlement is compromised, both of them find themselves now on the run, equal in the condemnation afforded them in the eyes of the rest. What unravels in the chaotic final 20 minutes of the film offers a startling and genuinely fascinating picture of loss and gain. The attempting to gain prominence and to get ahead through some suspect, morally questionable choices, we can also see that this was driven by Cookie’s recognition of the unfairness of it all, which emerged from the label of being a bottom feeder, something of a servant, and now a thief.
At the same time, as we see him now on the run just as King-Lu was when he met Cookie, he is being chased or followed by a boy whom himself found himself the recipient of social neglect. Earlier we see the boy denied the last biscuit, the product of the milk and of Cookie’s aspirations, based on his loss of a place in line. So Cookie, now suffering an injury caused by his fleeing, eventually reunites with King-Lu, but given his injury only has the strength to go so far before having to lie down, seemingly to rest, but clearly with a hint that he seems to have little life left to live and give. His pursuits and his attempts for gain have caught up to him in his given poverty. This is where we see King-Lu faced with a choice, measuring the money, which he could salvage by leaving Cookie behind, in one hand, and his friendship and bond in the other. He ultimately chooses friendship, lying down next to Cookie and bringing the film firmly into the future and the uncovering of this grave so many years later.
It’s an astounding vision that Reichardt presents here, one of two people across ethnic lines being bonded together in struggle, and surrounded by others on all sorts of potential sides of this struggle. But what pulls these two skeletons back into the pages of history as fully fleshed out persons is the image of the cow. The cow is both a hopeful image and a damning one, depending on which perspective we are looking from, either ahead from the past or backwards from history. What’s interesting about the image that looks backwards is that, in some sense it is equally hopeful. This image of two people from diverse backgrounds rendered indistinguishable as skeletons imagines a better future that still could be. But it must be a future built on our true understanding and recovery of the past. How we imagine the Cow as a symbol for our current economic system, and how the Cow is used to achieve our dreams and our imaginings of prosperity and progress, is one of the most important imaginative processes that we can engage in today. This is something that needs to be reformed and redeveloped as we choose to consider the past. Caught between the admiration and appreciation and seeming worship of the Cow is the stuff that eventually leads everything to spiral into chaos in the film, ultimately built by way of competition and capitalist ideals and fueled by an awareness of social placement and division and the human need to belong.
The real question this leaves us with then is this. Seeing this picture from our vantage point, looking back on history, how does seeing history through Reichardt’s telling of this simple story about the first cow help to reframe our understanding of the future in a more informed and more meaningful, and dare I say more godly way? How is it that we will be able to learn how to detach ourselves from the delusions and falsities of the American Dream as a capitalist system based on gains and losses, haves and have nots, and draw it back to its most essential vision of a people working and existing together for the sake of true freedom? It’s a vital and important question, and one made all the more alive through Reichardt’s stylistic imaginings and the simple image of a red cow.