The other day I saw two adults face off over a box of spaghetti.
The pasta shelf was otherwise empty. Desperate shoppers were loading up their carts with provisions that would, they seemed to hope, last them long enough to outlast the onslaught of the virus-that-shall-not-be-named. The two pasta hunters pulled at opposite ends of the box for a second. They glared at each other. Neither spoke. Then, because we live in a civilized society where it's not really that hard to find dry spaghetti, one of them let go with a huff, turned around, and walked away.
I thought about that while watching First Cow, the new, luminous feature film by Kelly Reichardt. In one scene, a group of men stand in line–each clutching something valuable, shells or coins or a paper deed of currency–waiting patiently for the chance to buy a sweet cake. These are gruff, dirty, smelly men who've found their way to the Oregon Territory sometime in the late nineteenth century, in search of riches, work, or perhaps a little corner of the woods to call their own. There aren't many cakes available. They're going fast. A young man's eyes follow each transaction, his mind calculating whether he'll make it to the front of the line before the final cake is gone. He does. There's one left. Suddenly, from behind him, an arm shoots out. A hard-faced elder takes the sweet, pays, walks away. The young man stands there aghast. He too, eventually, walks away.
There are no good or bad people in Kelly Reichardt's films. There are just people who, despite often being trapped in circumstances beyond their control–of gender, class, culture, geography, weather, biology–have to make their own choices. There are, to be sure, right and wrong choices, but "right" can mean many things, depending on the person and the circumstances. Right can mean morally correct, but it may also mean appropriate, advisable, expedient, or necessary, and everybody knows that those imperatives often exist in opposition to each other.
First Cow is about food (I mean, the protagonist's name is "Cookie," for crying out loud). Everything that lives must eat. First Cow shows chicken gobbling feed, and the cow chewing on grass, and a cat pawing at table leftovers; there's a pack of wolves snarling ravenously as they hunt for prey. But there's food and there's food. We eat because we need to but also because most of us love it, not just to fill our bellies but to nourish our souls.
The most crucial choices in First Cow are made by Cookie (John Magaro), a sensitive, flutey-voiced baker's apprentice from the East Coast, and King Lu (Orion Lee), an adventurous Chinese man with a gentlemanly manner and high ambitions. Although First Cow is the story of their friendship, it's not about friendship, or, I should say, it is, but in a strange, wonderful, roundabout way. It's not about cows either, though it does feature a cow.
The two first meet when Cookie finds King Lu hiding amidst the foliage, stark naked, and shivering. Cookie is a bringer and a finder and a maker of food. King Lu's first word to him is "hungry." So Cookie brings him food. Reichardt follows him as he forages for mushrooms, picks blueberries, pulls fish out of a stream. At King Lu's urging, Cookie steals some milk from the titular cow, imported to the hinterland by the pompously British Chief Factor (Tobey Jones) to make a batch of biscuits. It's King Lu who suggests they take Cookie's creations "to market," where Chief Factor anoints them as "delicious baked comestibles."
Neither one is someone you'd call a good guy. Cookie's nice, but he also leaves a baby unattended for the chance to drink a few sips of moonshine. King Lu is a thief and a killer. Still, they find and link themselves to each other with a finality already hinted at in the film's opening moments, and they make a chain of choices, some small, some momentous, some separately, some together. Their bond is formed as each saves the other's life–Cookie feeds a starving King Lu, who later returns the gesture by taking the cook in when he's run out of money and options. As their circumstances worsen and their options narrow over time, that bond becomes the core of their existence. The expressions on their faces as they find each other at a late, crucial moment–the concern, the relief, the love–are Reichardt's answer to that most fundamental question: What do we live for?
We need contact with others as much as we need food, which is why the virus-that-shall-not-be-named is messing with our heads. But true friendship is a rare thing–as rare, and as precious, as a dough puff slathered in honey is to a frontier woodsman who wears a dead possum for a hat.