First Cow, Connection and Crisis

Nothing has moved me this year as much as a scene from Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro), a shy, shuffling, wild creature of a man finds himself standing in a single room cabin in a forest in nineteenth century Oregon. The woods are as hushed and sacred as a cathedral. You can feel a sharp shiver of cold in the air, and the leaves are gilded with autumnal sunlight. His host, a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) chops wood outside in the surrounding glade. We catch glimpses of him through the glassless windows, and we can hear the reassuringly regular thwack of the axe. The sound promises fire and warmth, but also the vital presence of another person, the proximity of another soul.

King-Lu has told Cookie to make himself at home, but like anyone left alone having been given such an instruction, he isn’t quite sure what to do. A pause, then he picks up a broom leaning nearby and begins sweeping the cabin floor. When he’s finished, he steps outside and out of frame for a moment before returning, clutching a flower. King-Lu reappears and smiles, telling him that the room “looks better already.” It’s almost unbearably tender, and the first time I saw it I suddenly felt that strange little shock of tears forming. The unexpected but fated coming together of two strangers felt miraculous during a year when our connections are fraying.

Before the flower and the axe, Cookie was the forager and cook for a group of brutish fur trappers. He first stumbles upon his new friend in the forest in the dead of night while searching for food. King-Lu is crouched on the ground, naked and vulnerable, on the run from a gang for killing a man who murdered his friend. Despite the terrible risk, Cookie hides him overnight and helps him escape. There’s something mythic here: our hero is presented with a moral test by a man who seems to have sprung forth from the ground like one of the mushrooms he’s foraging for. The two men find each other again later in a dim saloon, and King-Lu invites Cookie to his cabin in gratitude for his lifesaving kindness.

Is First Cow a Western? Cookie and King-Lu are not rodeo riders, cowboys, sheriffs, bounty hunters or bandits. Neither of them ever wields a pistol or even sits astride a horse. They eke out their lives in the woodlands of Oregon, not in a dusty town on the edge of a desert or plain. They even slightly predate the period of history the Western mythologises: the film is set in 1820, and what we think of as the Wild West tends to encompass the mid 19th to early 20th century. But the themes, tropes and trappings of the Western are here. This is life on the frontier, life on the edge of wilderness, life on stolen land. Survival is a struggle for those who’ve managed to go west to seek their fortunes, and any flicker of weakness, any sign of deviation from the masculine ideal, is seised upon and torn to shreds. There is little love to be found here, and yet -

Kelly Reichardt already disrupted the Western’s supposedly ingrained masculinity in her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, a story of three couples’ doomed journey through the desert along the Oregon trail. But First Cow is its own revelation, a younger, gentler sibling to Meek’s Cutoff that unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve, even as that heart is eventually broken.

In his study of masculinity in the Western, Lee Clark Mitchell describes the foundational conflict of the genre as “what it means to be a man, as ageing victim of progress, embodiment of honor, champion of justice in an unjust world.” Reichardt’s vision is undoubtedly concerned with what it means to be a man, though she has no time for the either the white-hatted pinnacle of virtue of the classic Western or the growling anti-hero of the revisionist Western. Each is now as clichéd as the other. Back in the cabin, Cookie and King-Lu weave a private domestic world where they can dream of a life together (maybe even together together), free from aggressive, repressive masculinity and the hierarchy that keeps them trapped them in poverty. They plan to steal from another more respectable thief: they secretly milk the wealthy English landowner’s prize cow to bake and sell their own cakes to the trappers and travellers, thereby democratising a luxury. It’s quiet resistance, or at least a way to try to beat those who subjugate them at their own game.

But this is a sad, short-lived story, a fable or ballad of what couldn’t be. The system eventually wins, dashing King-Lu’s hopes and plans and crushing Cookie’s boundless compassion.

For most of us, this year has been both crisis and stasis. Everything and nothing has happened, and we’re all waiting, waiting, waiting to be allowed to earnestly hope for anything else. There isn’t much else to do. “History hasn’t gotten here yet,” says King-Lu, but in 2020 every second feels like history, not so much a neat unfolding but a haphazard yet dreary descent. We’ve experienced countless “where-were-you-when-you-heard” moments we’ll carry forever, even as the world gets smaller, walls close in and time slows down. My life felt removed enough before, a barbed thing that probably wanted an excuse to remain closed. Of course I saw myself in Cookie’s quiet acceptance of things as they are, and his surprise at the possibility of change. I have so much to be grateful for that to want anything more feels unforgivably selfish.

Insecurity means I tend to rip desires and hopes out of the ground before they’ve taken root. I often don’t get as far as “I wish.” They’re troublesome weeds, not promising shoots and buds. They disturb the surface and they’re too thirsty for water, light and air. I unconsciously dig down and pull them up with my own dry hands, though I can’t get rid of the soil under my fingernails and there are still holes in the ground. I’m thinking about Cookie as a forager, as someone who searches for and creates what is nourishing from the earth. He stumbles on King-Lu in much the same way as he finds blueberries or mushrooms, and makes the choice to reach out in both sympathy and empathy. It’s a selfless act that leads to both his ruin and his salvation.

It sometimes feels as if women writers in particular are expected to tear themselves open to justify what they care about and why they should be listened to. Does the kind of writing I want to do have any value if it can’t be tied to personal experience? Did you click on this because you were a little bit curious, and were you expecting something much rawer? Can you write anything if you still haven’t really lived yet? I consider this a lot. First Cow opens and closes with death, but it makes me want to live. The possibility of change only burned briefly for Cookie and King-Lu, but those two skeletons are perfectly preserved. They weren’t remembered, but they were found, and found together. I hope we can be together next year.

Film writer, English Heritage assistant, Jane Campion champion. @laura_venning on Twitter.