Two men, alone in the Northwestern territories circa 1820, find themselves open to a scheme of thievery wherein they steal milk from a local rich benefactor to start a business selling fresh honey biscuits to local fur trappers. When they’re eventually caught, they two men go on the run and try to hide from the vengeful wealthy businessman.
On paper, this sounds like the setup for a Coen Brothers western. It could’ve easily wound up as one of the short stories in The Ballad of Buster Scrugs. In execution though, it winds up a completely different kind of beast.
As National Review’s Armund White summarizes, the film is an “AntiMasculine AntiWestern”.
“Reichardt’s anti-Western… counters the historical mythology of strong white male founders through two sensitive (read queer) cisgender males… who partner covertly. Using their skills at cooking and survival, they sell baked goods to the treacherous Gold Rush pioneers, a venture in early entrepreneurship — and minority group audacity — that costs them their lives… This reset of the past accords with Obama’s “You didn’t build that!” allegation. Reichardt posits that American capitalism is based on treacherous, murderous competition; she reveals her bias by patronizing Cookie and King-Lu as victims.”National Review, July 27, 2020
Such a basic setup for a story is usually influenced by its framing and circumstances. In this instance, I think White hits the nail right on the head. First Cow is fundamentally a loveless romance story about two very meek and gentle men who resort to stealing in a cutthroat world of survival to get by. As we see early in the film, the two men are scrounging around the forests of Oregon for fish and mushrooms to eat.
One of the two men, King Lu, is a Chinese man on the run from the law after commuting a murder. The other man, Cookie, is even meeker and is shown to be quit gentler than the rough group of men he travels with for work. Their meekness and gentle disposition are their defining traits. It casts them in contrast to the quasi-regal wealthy businessman who, in Lu’s words, hold all the “capital” necessary to prospering in an unrefined, uncivilized capitalist wasteland.
In this world of cowboys and trappers, two gentle men aren’t worth much and so they resort to stealing a few servings of milk from the only cow in the region to start their own business. Naturally the scheme quickly falls apart and they’re left alone running for their lives.
As we see in the film’s prologue, their skeletons are eventually dug up by a young woman and her dog walking along the side of the river nearly two hundred years later. These characters are doomed by circumstance and the cruelty of profit driven enterprise for which they have no chance of competing against.
As the film’s opening William Blake quote would suggest, all they really have is their friendship together. This is a tragedy of two lost souls who were ground up in the wheel of history and lost by the uncaring nature of the bottom line.
I can’t say such a film’s moral is terribly profound. It’s not original to write loathsome scathing critiques of capitalism in this century or prior ones. That amusing hasn’t stopped critics who have lavished the film as 2020’s unspoken masterpiece of cinema. As The Atlantic wrote in its Best of 2020 list:
“First Cow is a very intimate examination of friendship that feels both oppressively minute and, at moments, downright sweeping, taking in the landscape of a brave new world while interrogating its cruel, false promises.”The Atlantic, December 10, 2020
RogerEbert.com similarly praised the film and offered another lavish description of its gentle condemnation of capitalism.
“… A simultaneously gentle and unsparing dissection of the formative flaws of capitalism, and thus of the “American dream”; a frontier story which captures the harsh realities and simple pleasures of a life built painstakingly from rock, wood, and soil; a heist movie; an argument for the power of baked goods.”RogerEbert.com, March 6, 2020
As I always say though, period pieces are made because the filmmaker wants to reverberate a theme they feel needs to be expressed in modern times. I can’t speak to director Kelly Reichardt’s politics but it wouldn’t surprise me of this was a purposeful attempt to speak out against the crushing nature of modern western free markets.
Such criticisms are usually decadent and solipsistic. Certainly there is much to be said about the immorality of sweatshops in East Asian or the crushing working conditions of factories in China and Africa but that’s rarely what American socialists rail against. Most criticisms are born solely of immediate class envy and get spoken most eloquently by the rich white children of privilege who want to tear down their parents legacies.
If there are true injustices created by capitalism, they are best condemned by rich hipsters in expensive inner city apartments who just want to lash out against people who can afford more than them.
As the film’s prologue shows, this is a story about carrying an older story of class rivalry and cruelty into the present. As we see in modern discourse, such arguments are most commonly wielded by white leftists making anti-Rich, anti-white, anti-privilege screeds like In Defense of Looting to defend poor downtrodden rioters as they cynically destroy minority neighborhoods.
Does that make First Cow reprehensible? Certainly not. It’s a genteel and respectable drama from one of the most respected film studios in modern Hollywood: A24. That said, the tragedy it does capture is a uniquely modern one that is rarely used to advance any meaningful good.
Like last year’s best picture winner Parasite, I’m left enjoying the film for its excellent production but unsettled by the seething rage and jealousy that form its moral foundations.