First Cow

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

First Cow
"Everything we see is already long-gone, although as Reichardt makes clear, the seeds of much of what America would become are all here, germinating." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

There's an organic quality to the latest film from Kelly Reichardt, not just in the russet leaves and dark soil that a dog walker (Alia Shawkat) digs through in the its opening minutes - revealing a pair of skeletons in a shallow grave - but a sense of nature, often with man scraping at it, dominating the spaces of the film. The organic feel extends to the film's central relationship, which springs up in unexpected circumstances and to the narrative, which in its home-spun simplicity could have been handed down by the fireside through the generations.

That two people are dead to begin with is no spoiler when you consider that the bulk of the film, based on the book The Half-Life by Jon Raymond, who helped adapt the script, takes place in the 1820s. Everything we see is already long-gone, although as Reichardt makes clear, the seeds of much of what America would become are all here, germinating. This earlier world, which we're transported to via elegant segue, isn't a place where dog walking routes are marked out, but rather a new frontier, where fur trappers are making their way slowly along through Oregon Territory, to Fort Tillicum, which marks a speck of what they consider to be civilisation.

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It's en route that the sweet-natured Cookie (John Magaro) first crosses paths with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), buck-naked, starving and on the run, and decides to help him - an act of camaraderie that sets the tone for a film in which friendship is shown to hold an unquantifiable value. By morning King-Lu is gone, but on arrival at the fort - a rather grandiose term for what is little more than a collection of shacks with a bar and a couple of merchants - the pair will cross paths again, a reminder of just how small the world was in that moment.

At the fort it seems nature and man are engaged in a kind of score draw, neither quite able to dominate, with the shacks sticking up from the soil but needing regular sweeping to keep the land out - something that Reichardt mines for both comedy and companionship. The arrival of the cow of the title, bringing with her the small-minded prospect of a nice cup of tea to the self-important chief factor (Toby Jones), brings the possibility of much more to the pair of enterprising pals. In a world where it was important to milk every opportunity, they do just that, stealing some of the cow's yield each night and dishing up an oily cake taste of home to the fort in the mornings. Trouble brews with the tea, of course, but this is a film as much built upon mood as it is on plot.

Reichardt gently offers up the men's simple dreams and growing friendship for examination against a backdrop of incipient commerce, serving her observations on capitalism with a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of honey to sweeten the taste.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2021
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First Cow packshot
A cook with a group of fur trappers strikes up a connection with a Chinese emigre in the Old West.

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Writer: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, based on the book by Jonathan Raymond

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Alia Shawkat

Year: 2019

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US


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