You can tell a certain kind of history about America through its cows. Westward expansion coincided with the rise of the American cattle industry, enabled by the frontier’s vast farm, ranch, and open prairie land. Over the course of the 19th century, with the dual advents of refrigeration and the railroad, these cattle were put to use for more than their hides. The number of cows in America grew from 6.6 million in 1850 to more than 17 million by 1900, according to Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by the writer Mark Kurlansky.
The popular image of the Old West is tied to the mythology of cowboys, the workers who drove and watched cows over great distances. But the people with the power were the cattle barons who became doubly rich through their ranching business, as well as the vast land holdings required to operate that business. It was Henry Miller, the German immigrant cow king of California, who first drove cows from the east to San Francisco in 1853, a cattle business which he guided into an empire of “over 180,000 acres of what had been federal lands at a cost of about fifty-five cents an acre,” according to American Heritage magazine. More than a century later, Miller’s descendants have continued to profit from their family holdings, making millions on selling ever more valuable California water rights.
This is the world of First Cow, the new movie by the director Kelly Reichardt, whose movies often chronicle the inner lives of the working class. Set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, it stars John Magaro as an itinerant Jewish cook named Cookie Figowitz. An outcast on the frontier because of his mild demeanor, Figowitz strikes an easy friendship with King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese traveler looking to make his own fortune. Fort Tillicum, the settlement where they come to live is a more primitive Deadwood; while there is a saloon, the rest of the community is composed of lean-to’s and tents, save for the richly furnished home of Chief Factor, the governor.
The story starts going once a beautiful cow owned by Chief Factor — the titular “first cow” of the territory — arrives by raft. Once King figures out Cookie’s talent as a baker, he comes up with a plan: At night, they will covertly milk Chief Factor’s cow, and use the milk to make biscuits which they can sell the next day. The movie is a tidy little Marxist cautionary tale: The workers, through their own ingenuity and labor, transform someone else’s cowpital into a small windfall for themselves, and suffice to say it does not all work out so neatly.
Though the emotional center of the movie is the bond between Cookie and King, what transfixed me was the two-year-old cow (left unnamed in the movie, called Evie in real-life) whose milk drives the plot. In a recent interview with Vox, Reichardt explained that training Evie for the movie required weeks of acclimating her to the lights and sounds of a film set, as well as the river raft that brings her to Fort Tillicum. She was even acclimated to Magaro, whom Reichardt says stuffed his clothes with treats so that she would know to prefer him over all the other cast and set workers. Thus they form a different, more tender bond: When Cookie sits down at a stool for his first secret night-time milking, he speaks softly to Evie, in perhaps the only intimate tones of the whole movie. He acknowledges her pain, having heard that she lost both a calf and her bull mate on the journey west. He thanks her for her milk. Whenever he returns, she’s glad to see him.
Reichardt takes a brighter view of individual people and the small kindnesses of which they are capable, suggesting that better ways of living are possible.
Animals and their relationships with people have been a part of almost every movie that Reichardt has made. Wendy and Lucy is a study of a destitute woman’s fight to keep her dog, and the covered wagon travelers of Meek’s Cutoff would be nowhere without the livestock pulling them along. In First Cow there are animals beyond Evie: dogs yip throughout the camp from Fort Tillicum, and the movie’s opening shot, set in the present day, follows a young woman walking through the woods with her own dog. I’d say that First Cow’s climax begins once Chief Factor’s housecat goes missing, a development that drives a very slow, easygoing movie into a quite stressful final 20 minutes.
What Reichardt illuminates is how these vital relationships with animals are formed both in resistance to and as a result of a naturally exploitative world. Though Reichardt might see reality in the same bleak and unrelenting way Cormac McCarthy or John Steinbeck do, she takes a brighter view of individual people and the small kindnesses of which they are capable, suggesting that better ways of living are possible.
Exempted from this portrait of human generosity are the people with power, who are also the people most in a position to be meaningfully generous. When Chief Factor first tastes a biscuit baked by Cookie and King, exclaiming that it “tastes like London,” he does not realize that it could only have been baked by the milk of his cow. A terrifically staged scene at Chief Factor’s home, where Cookie and King meet Factor and his Chinook Native American in-laws, further ratchets up the intensity as Factor complains about the weak amount of milk he draws from his new cow. The company that Factor does keep, aside from the local indigenous leaders into whom he has married, are his group of personal thugs. No wonder his cat wanted to split.
Of course, it is the legacies of such ugly and powerful men that live on, propelled by lifetimes of vast accumulation, while the people and resources extinguished in the process are nearly entirely forgotten. Reichardt offers some of her own explicit visual commentary on this (which I won’t spoil here). The world is often, mostly, a shitty place, the movie seems to say. But dogs and cows make life easier.