Nothing’s more fun than interpreting symbolism in movies! (No, that’s not sarcasm; this is a review of an indie drama about a cow—it comes with the territory.) Take Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for example: in an otherwise puzzling scene, boxer Jake LaMotta is fooling around with his girlfriend when he suddenly gets up and pours ice water on his genitals. It’s an odd scene to take literally, but if taken as symbolism, a shot four minutes later fills in the blanks: a close-up of LaMotta soaking his fist in ice water after losing a big fight. There’s your allegorical connection—the fist is the phallus; fighting symbolizes men’s sexual domination and frustration. With that connection in mind, key scenes in Raging Bull take on a whole new meaning. But enough with bulls and violent men! Here’s some symbolism in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow to interpret: the two things we see floating down a river are 1) a cargo ship full of shipping containers and 2) a cow on a raft. What do you make of that?
First Cow’s narrative scaffolding builds a space for an answer. It’s the 19th century and settlers from around the world are making their way on the American frontier. Cookie Figowitz, a meek baker traveling with fur trappers, arrives in the Oregon Territory (presumably after braving a trial of a trail) with no prospects or friends to speak of. His fortunes change when he meets King Lu, a Chinese immigrant with an entrepreneurial spirit, who proposes a business venture for the two of them: stealing milk from the colony’s first and only cow in order to make biscuits. When their baked goods become the talk of the town, they find it difficult to keep their product popular and their bovine secret.
Well, it’s not their bovine, but is it anyone else’s? It’s a living creature, not, say, a shipping container out for delivery. But the frontier is home to a burgeoning form of capitalism, so the cow technically “belongs” to a wealthy landowner who likes milk in his tea (a necessity, of course). If this cow and capitalism talk is giving you déjà vu, you might’ve heard the famous “you have two cows” joke—you have two cows, and in a socialist system, the government takes one and gives it to your neighbor; in a communist system, the government takes both and gives you some milk; in a capitalist system, you can sell one and buy a bull (thus securing future cows). The joke extols market capitalism, but First Cow questions it: what about scarcity, when there’s not enough cow to go around? Where did your cows come from in the first place? What would we really do with cows in a non-capitalist system?
Kelly Reichardt, a director whose style is marked by quiet patience, doesn’t treat her film like a line of questioning, though—she turns it over in her hands like a many-sided, crystalline object, catching the light just right so that the questions shine through on their own. Her hands traverse the object carefully: Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt keep the camera very, very still, and if it must move, it crawls. Reichardt serves as the editor as well, locking the slow pace into the film’s DNA. The near-listlessness of the story lets it feel like an unvarnished day in the life—or a day in the lives, rather, given the frame’s commitment to making room for minor characters. Along with workers stealing milk in the night, we see Native Americans silently serving their captors, forlorn settlers unable to sell their wares, a cow refusing to be commodified beyond capacity; all that and even the slowness starts to feel a little anxious. As Reichardt mulls over her crystalline object, we can gaze in through different angles and try to identify the seeds of that anxiety.
From one angle, First Cow gets at the lie of opportunity, acknowledging the cost of infinite ambition on finite resources. From another, it celebrates perseverance in spite of our systems, signified by a distinctive, bittersweet score from folk musician William Tyler. From the performance angle, John Magaro and Orion Lee convey the revolutionary nature of male affection, finding in Cookie and King an alternative to raging bulls. It’s a film of exceptional craft that allows each of these interpretations to shine with clarity and gravity. It moves at a glacial pace, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about glaciers, it’s that we should appreciate them more while they’re still around.