There are plenty of movies about business, but few that consider it primally, with a view of the lemonade stand, actual or idealized, with which commerce begins. Kelly Reichardt’s new film, “First Cow,” does exactly that, and turns the exertions of its firsthand, bootstrap entrepreneurs into exciting and suspenseful drama. Paradoxically, the film undercuts its suspense from the start, because Reichardt has a clear idea of where business leads: she begins the movie with an Ozymandias scene (as in Shelley’s poem, illustrating the vanity of ambition) set in current-day Oregon, in which a woman (Alia Shawkat), wandering through the woods with her dog, finds and excavates from just below the topsoil two ancient skeletons lying side by side.
The rest of the movie is, in effect, a flashback, to eighteen-twenties Oregon. There, two itinerant laborers—Otis (Cookie) Figowitz (played by John Magaro), indentured under cruel conditions to trappers, and King Lu (Orion Lee), an immigrant from China—meet in dire circumstances and team up to share a shack together and eke out a subsistence living while nonetheless dreaming big. Their idea is to get to San Francisco and open a hotel there; but King Lu embodies the reality principle, discerning the high cost of travel, the vast investment needed, the difficulty of the city’s competition. Cookie—a talented chef who, in his youth, had been indentured and apprenticed to a Boston baker—is a dreamer in other ways, too. He provides pleasant albeit modest victuals for himself and King Lu but dreams of biscuits made with milk, a commodity that’s impossible to come by at their outpost. There is—as the title suggests—one cow in the area; its arrival, by barge, was something of a local spectacle. It belongs to a local grandee, the so-called Chief Factor (Toby Jones). King Lu convinces Cookie, who knows how to milk a cow, to join him on a nocturnal raid on the farm to steal some milk.
Under King Lu’s guidance and with his salesmanship, the pair turn their pleasure into business: they bring batter and a pan to the muddy local town square and sell Cookie’s fresh-made “oily cakes.” The treats, with their “secret” recipe (of course, including stolen milk), are the very exemplar of the cliché of a product “selling like hotcakes.” Lines form for their cakes; the last one of the day gives rise to bidding wars. Cookie and King Lu are making money, which they stash in their “bank”—a hole in a tree. But Cookie is increasingly uneasy about their nocturnal missions. They’ve gotten away with their filching so far, but he fears that their luck will run out. When the Chief Factor, an Anglophile epicurean, tastes a cake and discerns its secret ingredient, the two entrepreneurs find themselves ensnared in an inescapable web of deceit.
Reichardt’s scenes of the two men on their expeditions to steal milk have a basic and powerful tension: Will they or won’t they get away with it? The rigors the pair endured before teaming up, and their upstanding plans for the money once they’ve got it, give the audience an extreme rooting interest in them. If they succeed, then the movie gives honest and beleaguered working men a necessary glimmer of hope, a way out and even up. Plus, the movie implies that the Chief Factor from whom they’re stealing is a bigger thief, one who succeeds only through privilege, ruthlessness, and impunity. Yet Reichardt approaches these scenes with a double dose of principled cinematic inhibition. They are built of spare and isolated gestures and compositions, a sort of cinematic theme and variations in which the variations don’t vary much except as the plot dictates. Moreover, the pleasure of watching Cookie and King Lu carry out their scheme is undercut by the willful air of hopelessness that runs through the film. Reichart seems almost embarrassed to allow her audience to root for them.
Writing the script with Jon Raymond (in an adaptation of his novel “The Half-Life”), Reichardt endows King Lu with a gnomically philosophical sensibility (in one notable aphorism, he asserts that history hasn’t yet reached Oregon) to go with his perspicacious and hard-nosed business sense. He does the practical reckoning to determine whether and what kind of San Francisco is feasible, and how much money they’d need both to get there and to go into business. He also offers terse, insightful reflections about the fur trade to explain why he doesn’t export pelts to China. King Lu is a prototype of the latter-day business philosopher. It’s easy to imagine him, when history reaches Oregon, as the discerning entrepreneur and shrewd free marketeer who issues lofty pronouncements that get published as a book and burnish his public image as a thinker and leader—even as his unbridled ambition steers his business into ruin.
Reichardt’s sympathies lie more firmly with Cookie, the artisan whose aspirations are tempered with prudence; her sympathy is blended with pity for him as an intelligent and capable person whose practical efforts appear doomed to failure in the absence of self-destructive recklessness—or depraved ruthlessness. The story she’s telling asserts the inherent corruption of business and trade, however small or local—and it overleaps these specifics as if illustrating abstractions about the canker at the root of capitalism. The movie’s vision of the Chief Factor, who wields a vague authority over the locale, lines up to illustrate the thesis.
A frontier mock-up of a British grandee, the Factor is determined to import not just livestock and its practical benefits (the bull and the calf died on the journey) but also the sort of cultural refinement that he and his circle can achieve—and show off—in land he considers rude and savage. Here, Reichardt’s inspiration is observational, her curiosity is ardent, and her method is discerning. He’s married to a Native American woman whose extended family lives with them; notably, when they speak together, their dialogue isn’t subtitled. The Factor’s wife (played by Lily Gladstone, whose performance was the revelation of Reichardt’s previous film, “Certain Women”) translates their dialogue, in a Chinook language, into English for him, and, implicitly, for viewers. (In the role of her father, Totillicum, Gary Farmer gives a performance of fine irony and bluff humor.) Reichardt emphasizes the isolation of Anglophone settlers from the indigenous people whose land they’re inhabiting, and aptly portrays the discourse and the arts of the Chinook people as aspects of grand culture in and of themselves—which, of course, the Factor and his Europhile guests don’t notice and wouldn’t believe.
In short, “First Cow” is a movie divided against itself. Reichardt’s keen and spare sensibility simultaneously stokes suspense while shying away from it, leans toward perception while rushing toward judgment. Her abstemious repertory of images and tightly focussed drama suggest that she took greater pleasure in conveying her premise than in the also vital cinematic pleasure discovering her characters. The movie’s proportions and contours give rise to yet another familiar, altogether too common, failing of movies of overt political import: impersonality. The spare quasi-objectivity of the images, which appear to declare facts rather than states of mind, reflect a repudiation of the heterogenous, a lack of interest in aspects of character and behavior that don’t line up in the same direction or lead to the predetermined outcome. The long nights in the cabin, the inevitable tale-spinning, reminiscences, confessions—the characters of King Lu and of Cookie, although not completely silenced, are truncated and diminished, relegated to their function as the bearers of Reichardt’s deterministic design. There’s a minor subplot that ultimately plays a large role in the film—one akin to that of “Parasite,” in which the rich pit the poor against each other in a struggle for survival—but Reichardt is content to drop it in at arm’s length and leave it totally undeveloped and unconsidered. “First Cow” gathers elements of extraordinary experience, analytical insight, and historical perspective, but renders them narrow, didactic, faux-objective; its empathy and curiosity are too severely rationed.
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