Skip to content

No Boots Without Leather

Cattle and capital in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow

There’s a video on YouTube that I’ve long been obsessed with called “Homekill New Zealand.” It’s the kind of awful eyeworm you can’t unsee: a butcher breaking down a cow, from just-killed to market-ready, in fifteen minutes.

The first image is of the cow lying on the ground, already dead, with a large cut down its throat. There’s a deeper wound at the base of the cow’s neck where it was stuck and bled not long ago. (Nick, the butcher and owner of the YouTube channel, reserves the killing for another video.) The camera stays tight on the cow’s corpse throughout, with Nick flitting in and out of frame as he hurriedly goes about his work: first removing the cow’s head, then its legs, then its skin. The cow is hoisted up by two hooks and opened at its belly. Its guts are untethered with a few deliberate cuts and promptly spill out onto the ground; Nick pokes two carry-holes into one of the stomachs to more easily haul the pile away, like a box of beer. Finally, the cow is sawn in half vertically along its spine and divided again into quarters: the front, with skirt, rib, and brisket; and the hind, with rump, round, and sirloin.

The video is meant to exhibit Nick’s butchering prowess (one commenter calls it “poetry with a knife”), but at the center of the frame, always, is this thing—cow, cattle, corpse, capital—and its transformation: from living to dead, animal to meat, subject to object. I’m always curious as to when people feel the cow stops being a cow, how many layers need be removed before the symbol disappears entirely. The process is one of unmaking the animal. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might note that Nick necessarily begins by removing the cow’s face.

“Homekill New Zealand” articulates, in appropriately visceral terms, the divide between “cow” and “beef,” one usually relegated to the stainless-steel killing floors of postindustrial agribusiness. That this violence occurs in isolation here, between one man and one cow, creates a rupture in the narrative of an otherwise normalized, naturalized slaughter. The video is useful in this way: the prolonged spectacle of Nick’s butchery aptly captures the vulgar disparity of the man-cow relationship—and, moreover, the extent to which we subjugate, dominate, and destroy certain species in the pursuit of human betterment.

There is a cow at the center of Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, too, though she is treated a little better than the one in “Homekill New Zealand.” Reichardt’s cow (who I’ll call Evie, after the cow that plays her) is a dairy cow, the “first cow in the territory” for a small settlement in 1820s Oregon. She has been imported by the area’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy imperialist who wants desperately to smarten up the savage frontier he inhabits.

We first see Evie floating downstream on a raft in the delicate morning light. Through the gossip of locals, we learn that she was meant to arrive with a family, a bull and a calf, but that they perished on the long journey from wherever. (Arriving already mythic, there is some debate over the cow’s origin.) An image that initially reads as serene—and which might prompt you to lean to your seatmate and say, “That’s the first cow”—Evie’s arrival is instead marked by death and portends much worse than just milk or cream. She is the harbinger of industry, the precursor to a million more cows and catastrophes, and Reichardt has her grand entrance mirror the opening shot of the film—a large container ship drifting through the frame—for this very reason.

That shot, an homage to Reichardt’s late friend and mentor Peter Hutton, initially anchors us in the present day. The film begins with a brief vignette of an unnamed girl (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog by the river. The two trudge about in the mud for a while until the dog catches scent of something exciting and starts to dig. The girl, following her whatcha-got-there dog-owner duty, scrambles over to help, and the two work together to unearth a pair of skeletons, lying side by side, ostensibly holding hands. That Reichardt tells this story in just a few minutes before cutting back to 1820s Oregon for the film’s remaining two hours frames First Cow as a work of excavation, an archaeology of the past led by the question: How did we get here? Or, as in previous Reichardt films Night Moves and Wendy and Lucy: Where did it all go so wrong?

Evie’s appearance marks the beginning of the very thing that will destroy her: the global economic system that has effectively ended the cow as a singular, terrestrial being.

The answer, apparently, is cows. Or capital. Historically, the terms are somewhat interchangeable. In his book Beyond Beef, Jeremy Rifkin notes that the word cattle comes from the same etymological root as capital, and that, in many European languages, the words for cattle, chattel, and capital were synonymous. In ancient Greece, daughters were often given cattle-derived names in order to emphasize their worth. And in Latin, the word for money, pecunia, is derived from pecus, meaning cattle. The humble cow, then, is a potent metonym for wealth and property, one that spans peoples and cultures. It represents a moveable medium of exchange, an asset that might become milk, meat, or labor. In this way, cow prefigures entire industries.

Reichardt’s titular First Cow might therefore be better understood as the Last Cow, in that Evie’s appearance marks the beginning of the very thing that will destroy her: the global economic system that has effectively ended the cow as a singular, terrestrial being. If the ancient cow gave us the language of capitalism, the modern cow has been subsumed by it. “Livestock” today implies not only a quantity of living animals in a pen, but a series of numbers confined to cells on a spreadsheet; “branding” is no longer the marking effect of fire on flesh, but the very thing that disappears the cow’s milk into “Dairy Fresh.” First Cow operates on the cusp of this transformative moment, before cows were container ships, spanning past and present with a teleological cynicism that is best defined by those two skeletons unearthed in the film’s opening: it’s too late, were already dead.   

Whose bones are they, anyway? The question is never explicitly answered, though we can assume they belong to the two friends at the heart of First Cow, Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). Cookie is a meek but talented baker who starts out the film working for a group of fur trappers—a gatherer among hunters, the Beta boy they all beat up on when hungry. While foraging for mushrooms one day, Cookie discovers an upturned lizard and takes the time to get the creature back on its feet. Later that night, when he discovers a naked King-Lu hiding in the bushes, Cookie offers similar kindness: food, water, and shelter for the evening.

This small gesture begins a relationship suggested by the film’s opening title card, a quote from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Throughout First Cow, Reichardt appeals to nature as that which is entirely contrary to capitalism, arguing for connectedness over competition. It’s an ethos she’s held for some time, stating in a 2016 interview: “One question that seems to come up over and over in all my movies is: What is our relationship to each other? . . . Are we in this all together or are we just supposed to make our way, keep blinders on, and not care about the person standing next to us.”

King-Lu and Cookie have arrived at the frontier of Western capitalism in very different ways: King-Lu through ambition, traveling from China to London to Africa and beyond; and Cookie through necessity, after the deaths of his parents. “Had to move on to find work,” he says. “Never stopped moving.” These disparate experiences are cause for some tension in their relationship, with King-Lu’s influence often feeling exploitative. In one sense, King-Lu has rescued Cookie from the fur trappers and other ogreish bullies who would take advantage of a man who can’t stand up for himself. But the way King-Lu relates to Cookie is not so different from these cruel frontiersmen—only more charming and thus more insidious.

During their naked midnight meet-cute, King-Lu lets slip that he’s on the run from some angry Russians, having killed one of their friends after they killed one of his: “They called him a thief and then gutted him from neck to loin.” Alarm bells should ring, then, when he pushes Cookie to steal milk from the Chief Factor’s newly arrived cow. (Cookie argues that it “Sounds dangerous.” King-Lu replies: “So is anything worth doing.”) Several milk heists later, the two are discovered by one of the Chief Factor’s guards and forced to flee. On the run from gunfire, Cookie hits his head and is maybe mortally wounded. By the time the two are able to reunite at King-Lu’s shanty, grab their money, and make a getaway for San Francisco, it seems Cookie may ultimately succumb to his injuries. King-Lu has the option to take the bag and run, but opts instead to stay, assuring his friend: “I’ve got you.” Even if, after two unsuccessful partnerships, he’s absorbed the message of that William Blake epigraph, it’s nonetheless too late for Cookie.

The line that precedes Reichardt’s chosen excerpt from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reads: “Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.”

Animals, even in this holiest of natural orders, are little more than accessories, though at least Blake had the good sense to name them—lion rather than “fur,” sheep rather than “wool.” Doing so denotes that these commodities are owed to the animal, that they cost us the animal’s life. Only recently has this distinction, between animal and capital, been properly theorized. Even Marx appeared to struggle with the concept. “No boots can be made without leather,” he writes in Capital, subsuming cattle under “the means of production” as mere “raw material”—the process of the cow’s destruction presupposed. Though Marx was sensitive to animals in other ways—articulating their struggles as human struggles, paving the way toward what Timothy Morton would call an interspecies “solidarity”—he nevertheless accepted a worldview of human exceptionalism that was endemic to his time. (Morton himself labels Marx an “anthropocentric philosopher,” though importantly calls this a “bug, not a feature” of his work.)

In his introduction to Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, John Sanbonmatsu writes that “Marx’s account of the nature and purposes of human existence revolves around an insupportable dualism that places human being on one side and animal being on the other.” It is not just that this separatism has led to the extinction and endangerment of tens of thousands of animal species; this dualism is an intra-human one, too, where the denigration of the animal prefigures that of the Other. Humans are made separate from their animal selves only to displace those animal qualities onto people we deem lesser-than: Hitler’s imagery of the Jew-as-rat, for example. So long as we accept this human prejudice, “then the humanist discourse of species will always be available . . . to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference,” notes theorist Cary Wolfe. (Or, to bring Blake back into the fold: “A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate / Predicts the ruin of the State.”)

Reichardt is sensitive to these parallels and paradoxes in the treatment of humans and animals, so clearly a lover of dogs, horses, cows, and other critters herself. (Certain Women is dedicated to the memory of her late dog Lucy, star of Wendy and Lucy.) One scene in First Cow has the Chief Factor entertaining guests: Cookie and King-Lu, who have been invited to bake a clafoutis (using the Chief Factor’s own stolen milk), the Native American Totillicum (Gary Farmer), and a military friend from the motherland (Scott Shepherd). Always looking to impress, the Chief Factor gives two important speeches that, in their proximity, place human and animal suffering side by side.

Humans are made separate from their animal selves only to displace those animal qualities onto people we deem lesser-than.

One concerns Evie’s breeding. The Chief Factor reveals her to be something of bovine royalty—“half Alderney” and “half Froment du Léon from the province of Brittany.” Otherwise a plain-looking dairy cow (chosen from piles of headshots for having the “biggest eyes”), Evie’s overtly normal exterior belies the complex and grotesque history of eugenics that brought her into the world. Through years of human control, her body morphology has been manipulated in order to maximize her utility as a milk-producing machine. In the same way that Evie prefigures industries to come (be that beef, dairy, or otherwise) her body is itself a site of industrialization. Worse than extinction, human-minded capitalism will expose Evie and her ilk to endless proliferation, their bodies wracked and reformed in accordance with a more capitalist-perfect construction of what a Cow™ should be.

The other of the Chief Factor’s speeches focuses on corporal punishment. Discussing some “mutinous” deck hands encountered on his military friend’s journey from Europe, the Chief Factor advises on how best to deal with “indolent” subordinates:

When one factors in the loss of labor from the punished hand versus the gain of labor from those hands who witness the punishment, a stricter punishment can be the more advisable path. Even a properly rendered death can be useful in the ultimate accounting.

In these two speeches are two forms of violent control—one external and one internal, one visible and one not. Taken together, they reveal Evie’s plight to be no less disgusting than that of the cow in “Homekill New Zealand,” despite my earlier assessment. To say otherwise is to ignore a tragic lineage of forced insemination, carnal trafficking, genome altering, involuntary cannibalism, imprisonment-psychosis, and behavioral ruination that both precedes and follows her. In the name of “productivity,” lashings are measured out to deck hands and cows alike—a system of domination that might as easily be called fascism as capitalism. What makes “Homekill New Zealand” so useful, then, is the way in which it depicts the intertwining of these ideologies: “To see those wielding total power annihilate those who have no power at all,” writes Sanbonmatsu, “is to see ontologized or made real a relation which, until that moment, could only be expressed ideologically.”

Though human beings have punished and enslaved other species and each other for thousands of years, only under capitalism has this meant their total reduction to the status of objects—so carefully weighed, as in the Chief Factor’s “ultimate accounting,” for their value. In First Cow’s final image of Evie, she is obscured by a fence, in a plot maybe two cow-lengths wide, grazing on what little grass is available to her. This small prison is a vision of her future: the shift from agrarian farming to industrial, toward what Richard Bulliet defined as the “postdomestic era,” in which people are physically and psychologically removed from the animals that produce the products they use. Evie—the cow—will be necessarily disappeared. She will exist only as her object-self, as commodity, as milk—that useful thing that makes human bones strong, so that they may one day be unearthed by whatever survives in this ruined world we’ve made.