It opens boldly, with three minutes of credits. Just white font on a black screen. When was the last time you saw that outside of a Woody Allen movie? Movies don’t have opening credits anymore because we don’t have the attention span for it. Or they think we don’t. Next, we get the film’s first actual shot. It’s of a barge slowly making its way down a river, moving left to right on your screen. It takes about a minute. As we just watch this thing drift across our field of vision, our pulse slows. Our anxiety lifts. We don’t even think to check our phones.
Forget the DeLorean. Forget hot tubs. This is time travel I can get behind.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow could best be classified as an anti-western, and it’s not her first. 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff followed a wagon trail in 1845 Oregon; the journey it depicted was just as labored and grueling and filled with bad choices as they likely were in reality. It inverts the pioneer myth of America itself, especially when the anxious settlers start rejecting the advice of their White guide and instead begin listening to the Native American they have taken captive.
This new film zooms in on characters who would be dead meat or comic relief in any other western, whether classical, revisionist, or Spaghetti. It opens on Cookie (John Magaro), a kind soul who is named after his profession. He has been hired by a trio of bullying roughnecks traveling West in search of gold. to find and cook their meals. He keeps them alive, and they resent it. They sense his weakness and treat him like crap. Out foraging for mushrooms one evening, he bumps into King-Lu (Orion Lee), a naked Chinese man on the run from Russians. Already, Reichardt has subverted our expectations twice. She focuses her lens on a tender cook and vilifies the cowboys seeking glory. And she depicts the Old West as a melting pot. It wasn’t just Whites and Native Americans. If you consider that the western genre exists essentially as a form of propaganda – creating and reinforcing the myth of how White America conquered this savage land – it’s hard to imagine a stronger subversion.
Perhaps because they’re the only men in Oregon not looking for a fight, Cookie and King-Lu quickly develop a rapport. They become roommates, and over long conversations filled with comfortable pauses, they hatch a scheme to steal milk from the only cow in the province – it belongs to the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – and make “oily cakes” to sell at the local market. Cookie’s talent is apparent; they sell like, well, hot cakes. King-Lu, meanwhile, has the soul of an entrepreneur and knows how to create a market. In First Cow, we may hear the origin of the phrase “ancient Chinese secret” in American marketing. They make a great team.
They’re Americans, but not the ones written about in the history books. They’re gentle people, especially Cookie, whose entire disposition seems designed to avoid confrontation. He’s not Gary Cooper. He’s one of the townspeople who won’t help Cooper in High Noon. When he milks Chief Factor’s cow, he chats her up to put her at ease. “I’m sorry about your husband,” he says, referencing her mate who died on the journey. “And your calf.” Good luck finding a kinder moment in the movies of 2020.
Cookie and King-Lu dream big. They plan to make bank in Oregon, then travel to San Francisco to open up a bakery and hotel, but not the kind that rich people stay at. Their hotel will be for people like them. Yes, there’s a queer subtext to their relationship, especially in the sense of doom that hangs over their relationship because the world isn’t ready for men like them. In one of the film’s most striking images, they lay down next to each other in the woods. Is this an image of two lovers or just truly gentle men with a beautiful friendship? The film never answers this question because the characters never would. Either way, they’re outliers in the rough-and-tumble West, and that’s all that matters.
It’s a film that touches issues of gender, sexual identity, animal rights, and capitalism – oh, and I’d argue that its understanding of the transformative power of food functions as a defense of art – and while it’s singular in its focus, it also seems to pair naturally with several other films I’ve seen this year. Like Sorry We Missed You, it succinctly portrays a caste of Americans who start off behind in life and have to take dangerous risks to gain what others are gifted. Like Shithouse, it shines a spotlight on the beta male. Like Gunda, it captures the rhythms of nature and resets our understanding of a world characterized only by myth.
First Cow resonates most as a story reflecting the best values of our era. Our efforts to recognize people marginalized by history. Our desperate search for harmony, with the earth and each other. A growing understanding of the fundamental evils of capitalism and colonialism. Unlike I’m Thinking of Ending Things or The Assistant, it doesn’t capture the encroaching anxieties or acute terror of the pandemic, our isolation, or the threats to our democracy. Instead it sees those troubles and contextualizes them in a new narrative history.
It’s not the film of the year. It’s the antidote.
* * *
Other Films I liked in 2020 That Didn’t Make My List: Miss Juneteenth, Bacurau, Minari, Collective, Martin Eden, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, American Utopia, The Nest, The Invisible Man, Shirley, Swallow, On the Rocks
TV Shows I liked: Ted Lasso, Queen’s Gambit, Big Mouth, The Morning Show, The Last Dance. I didn’t actually finish most of these because I’m a terrible TV watcher, but I really liked them.
I got really into Olipop sodas this year. You should check them out.
Articles I wrote this year that were decent:
“Binge and Purge: The Rise of Extreme Film Criticism” (LA Review of Books, January 7)
“My streaming gem: Why you should watch Paddleton” (The Guardian, May 4)
“I’ve never seen…The Lord of the Rings” (The Guardian, June 2)
“The Birth of Jack” (The Ringer, September 11)
“The overlooked obsession at the heart of Ron Howard’s films” (Polygon, November 19)
That’s all, folks. See you in 2021. And from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading.