Lessons in Tenderness from ‘First Cow’

First Cow is difficult to write about, not least because it’s one of those quiet, meditative films that renders verbal response unnecessary and ineffective. Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is situated so firmly in a sense of being present — to one another, to the natural world, to the quiet and tidy moments happening about us at all times — that writing about it feels somewhat like missing the point; akin to talking during a silent retreat. It does seem worthwhile, though, to reflect on the subjects of the film themselves, and what we might be able to learn from them.

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I. THE COW (FICTIONAL)

True to its titular promise, there is a cow in this movie (played by Eve, who we’ll get back to in a minute) — and she’s wonderful. Brown-haired and big-eyed, she is heart-stopping every time she appears on-screen (that’s not a trait unique to Eve — taking the time to really look at any cow will give you this feeling; meeting them, even more so).

In the film’s setting of 1820s Northwest America, she’s even more sensational for being the first cow in the territory, brought over by British landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Much of the film revolves around the theft of her milk by impoverished chef Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro) and fugitive King Lu (Orion Lee), who use the milk to bake and sell loukoumades-type treats called ‘oily cakes’. As Cookie returns again and again to milk her, there is a sense of ease and growing comfort between cow and human.

During these milking scenes, First Cow takes the time to simply look at her, this nameless new creature, alone in an unknown land with loss in her past (her “husband” and child died on the journey over). She is a presence inherently powerful in this film, like most on-screen animals, because she’s not pretending. We can hear her breathing at night. We can practically feel her pulse.

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II. THE HUMANS (FICTIONAL)

It’s vulgar to talk about awards, but it must be said that Magaro’s Cookie Figowitz is a shoo-in for Sweetest Little Sweetie Pie of the Year. He seems to find a spiritual twin in King Lu, the two forming an alliance so easy and natural that their domestic arrangement falls immediately into silent synchronicity. One of the film’s most tender moments: Cookie arriving at King Lu’s house and wordlessly sweeping, then picking wildflowers (!) to put in the house, all without being asked (in case it wasn’t obvious, First Cow is queer enough to make Brokeback Mountain blush).

Cast members Alia Shawkat and Toby Jones are a tad too recognizable to entirely melt into the tapestry here; they unavoidably register as ‘actors’ — but the film is held together by Magaro’s chemistry with co-stars Lee and Eve. In eyes, expression, and voice, Magaro plays Cookie with a perfect, truly touching gentleness, particularly when milking Eve. Though he deceives Chief Factor, he feels like an honest creature, his brown eyes open and vulnerable, in harmony with the brown-eyed cow he whispers small talk to at night.

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III. THE COW (REAL)

It’s hard to contemplate First Cow without contemplating the real cow, Eve, who exists in the United States because her ancestors were profitable. The period in which First Cow occurs seems to be a turning point in animal exploitation. While it’s not quite happening on a large, industrial scale yet, animals are already being captured and/or killed not for survival, but to feed the greedier beast of capitalism (when we meet Cookie, he’s working for fur trappers). When the first cow is brought to the Northwest, she has no idea of the fate awaiting the generations that will follow her. “History isn’t here yet,” King Lu says, “but it’s coming.”

Modern cows are subjected to widespread violence and trauma, particularly in countries that profit from their severed body parts as well as their bodily fluids. There’s something bittersweet in witnessing the beginning of this violent history — every word of praise for the oily cakes casts another vote for animal agriculture capitalism. “Milk,” writes Lana Valente, “is credited with the development of the modern food industry.” It should be remembered that this is not a sweet story for the first cow. It is a story of subject made product; of being shipped across the sea in the name of settler colonialism and capitalism. (“This ain’t a place for cows. God would have put cows here if it was.” / “No place for white men either.”)

We can enjoy Eve on-screen because she’s one of the lucky ones — a special actor-cow whose life, we can imagine, will be one of relative safety and comfort. Fans of the film would likely be distressed to hear of Eve (or her child) coming to harm, but the same cannot be said for the majority of her fellow bovines, who are still widely regarded as homogenous, nameless, and devoid of identities. These same fans may very well give no thought to eating other(ed) cows, and drinking their stolen milk, because those cows don’t have IMDb pages. The difference between being an indie darling and being murdered is, for people like Eve, the toss of a coin.

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IV. THE HUMANS (REAL)

In all of this is the question of our own complicity — us, the viewers; us, the consumers. It’s hard to think about animal cruelty while watching First Cow, because it feels so good to fall into its lullaby, but upon returning to this life, we must remember that we live in a world drastically different to that of the film. The world we live in has an abundance of cows. If we can care for the fictional first cow, can we extend that care to the cows in our own lives?

Consider the recent trend for publishing dairy-based ‘oily cake’ recipes, such as those on Vulture and Slate. Bafflingly, the A24 website published an article titled ‘Cooking Oily Cakes When You Don’t Know A Cow’, inadvertently highlighting the impersonal relationship between modern milk drinkers and the exploited cows who serve them. It would be nice to imagine that the milk used in these recipes was gently procured by a John Magaro type, but the cartons purchased by modern oily-cake bakers are, with few exceptions, more likely to be the product of violent exploitation. First Cow is beautiful, very warm, and pleasant to watch, and it’s understandable that viewers would want to recreate its atmosphere in their own lives. But we are living in a different time. If we want to be like Cookie, there are better ways.

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Early on in First Cow, Cookie encounters a small salamander turned on its back, struggling alone on a leaf. Bending down, he gently turns it over. It’s a gesture driven by a desire to make things a little easier for the salamander — someone so small and different from Cookie that he could easily ignore them, but doesn’t. Cookie does not have to help the salamander — he chooses to. In this moment, one creature assists another in getting on with their life, removing obstacles and offering aid without any expectation of reciprocity or reward. Forget the oily cakes. If we must copy something from First Cow, let it be the salamander turn.

First Cow played at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 6, 2020.

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Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm, Australia. She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.