Premiering at Telluride back in 2019 and now finally receiving a theatrical release courtesy of MUBI, First Cow has the honour of being among the year’s finest films three years running. No surprise, coming from Kelly Reichardt, one of the United States’ most brilliant and exciting directors.
“History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can get ahead of it. Maybe we can meet it on our own terms”. King-Lu’s (Orion Lee) pondering to his new friend, Cookie (John Magaro) as they traipse through the as-yet unspoilt forests of the Pacific North-West of America to his makeshift shack, neatly encapsulates one of the film’s core themes. This is a land of plenty and of opportunity – here for the taking for those that want it with none of the shackles of tradition and history to bind them. Perhaps here, in this new land, the old ways of doing things can finally be shaken off, and new ways forged ahead.
Lu’s optimism about the new land is undercut, of course, by there being an extant history and people in America, currently undergoing erasure to make way for the myth of manifest destiny. Cookie’s riposte that the country is as old as anywhere seems to acknowledge that the land that was there before them will surely outlast and subsume their momentary ambitions.
Reichardt has often characterised history as a sublime experience embodied in the landscape: too big to grasp, it can only be sensed, momentarily, as it passes through us, or as we pass through it. In Certain Women, it finds figure in the bleak economic and social straits of three women, set against the mountains of Montana; in Meek’s Cutoff, it is the encroaching desperation of a group of emigrants crossing the hopeless wilderness of the nineteenth-century Oregon Trail. Here, the sublime of history is simply its inescapability. As racial prejudice and erasure sits at the margins of the film a, English aristocrat Chief Factor (a wonderfully underplayed Toby Young), brings with him all the old structures of power and casual brutality. It is important, too, that the only female in this fable is the eponymous first cow (belonging to Factor), giver of precious milk, she represents new life and opportunity, but also the indenture and injustices of the old ways.
Reichardt frames the film in 4:3, privileging her human figures over the landscape that dwarfs them, shot in muted, earthy tones. It is a subtle visual tempering of the sublime that indicates to us that though First Cow may be set in the old West of the pioneers and prospectors, it is fundamentally a love story of two friends. There’s a strange tension that runs throughout their friendship – perhaps it’s our knowledge that friendship in Westerns often ends in betrayal or tragedy. It’s no spoiler to say that betrayal never comes. What we are left with instead is a story of astonishing tenderness; a study of love as a tempering salve to the sublime of history’s passing.