First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) opens with a citation from William Blake: “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. That this inscription is not exclusively true motivates the story of First Cow, as Reichardt explores the many ways in which man constructs its world. The film centres around the friendship of two ‘explorers’, Otis Figowitz (nicknamed ‘Cookie’) and King-Lu. First Cow, in its slow-paced, contemplative, yet precise story-telling captures the tensions incumbent in the ‘discovery of America’ that ensnare the characters and quietly control the story’s progress.
As the transport bringing the eponymous ‘first cow’ to modern-day Oregon (then home to several Native American groups) sails the waters just as the industrial liner in the opening shot does two hundred or so years later, we are reminded of the process of ‘civilisation’ in America that joins the United States’ murky past to its much-contested present.
The sensitive characters of Reichardt’s Western (rather than valiant cowboys) recreate the tensions of ‘discovery’ and domination both on the macro level – the Chief Factor’s and other elites’ political and cultural positioning to imperial centres such as Britain and France – and the micro – the ethics of controlling resources when Cookie almost seductively takes the milk from the cow to advance King Lu and his somewhat dire economic straits, and realise their relatively modest dreams.
The relationships between national groups of explorers – the American, Chinese and Russians – may not only be a dramatization of tensions that would characterise nineteenth century ‘exploration’, but remind the viewer of their continuation into the world we live in today. “Everyone is here”, says King-Lu, “We all want that soft gold.”
To choose friendship as a focus in the presence of these themes is a deliberate choice to examine the personal. To form a friendship in spite of tensions which are as corrosive to the individual and to nature as beneficial as they are to ‘cultivation’ is an act of great courage; to persist brings Cookie and King-Lu the joys of genuine companionship.
The two characters’ roles as economic actors are, however, inextricable from their personal lives: their dreams and their execution are inseparable from exploitative and hypocritical capitalistic systems and their attempts to further themselves ultimately lead to a life-threatening exclusion from this newfound society. Man may build friendship, but, as First Cow pervasively reminds us, it also destructs – a timely reminder for the viewer.