First Cow

****1/2

Reviewed by: Matthew Anderson

First Cow
"The simplest of pleasures bring the greatest moments of joy in Reichardt’s latest film." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

Once more returning to the Pacific Northwest, Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature, First Cow, sees the auteur director unearth new cinematic meaning from familiar territory. In a tender frontier drama that treads new ground on a well beaten track, Reichardt reframes traditional character roles, narrative convention and depictions of this unforgiving landscape.

Delicately twisting a genre dominated by conflict, rugged masculinity and greed, she again muses on representations of the elusive, illusory American Dream. Her focus is the pure, harmonious friendship of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lu), kindred spirits who are searching for a better place in the world, their slice of the pie. Speaking to the BFI in March 2017, upon the UK release of Certain Women, Reichardt stated that her work features “people who don’t have a big [safety] net under them”. That via her films, she asks whether it is “an each man for himself situation that we want to live in”.

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Partnering with frequent screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond, upon whose novel The Half Life First Cow’s script is based, these themes are again explored in Reichardt’s latest. Rich, autumnal woodland may replace the great Oregonian desert plains of Meek’s Cutoff, but regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s squared aspect ratio shows that here, too, horizons and opportunity are not endless. With themes as applicable to modern-day America as to the chief time setting of First Cow, opening with a contemporary prologue, a woman (Alia Shawkat) discovers the remains of two skeletons buried in a shallow grave on the banks of a broad river.

Having wiped away years of dirt to reveal just how near to the surface the past lies, their presence will haunt the film, but the deftness of the filmmaker’s editing (another of her many skills) shifts back to Oregon of the 1800s. Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz is gently picking mushrooms from the forest floor. Value has far more than monetary worth in First Cow; where others exploit this land for their own ends, be it beaver pelts or gold, Cookie – who is, shyly, unwittingly, the gentle hero of this tale – sees a glittering richness in nature, “a land of abundance”. With threadbare clothes and boots worn through, it’s clear that he certainly has no safety net to speak of, yet he is boyishly content.

And out foraging late at night – he is the cook for a crew of trappers – he comes across a man who has nothing whatsoever. King-Lu, pursued by Russians, having killed one of their midst, ditched his clothes to avoid detection. In a film and place where lives are ever on the move, transient and unstable, the characters we meet have all come from somewhere, or fled out of necessity, and strive ever-westwards for the intangible or the concrete. Where they are going is uncertain, but there is a magic in that untold opportunity in this “land of riches”, however desperate their current circumstances may be.

A kindly act by Cookie sees King-Lu on his way, and both are surprised when their paths cross again at a settlement where Native Americans, Scottish, French, Irish mix and intermingle, drink and fight and sell their wares at a market. If Cookie is the romantic, a dreamer, King-Lu's pragmatism and entrepreneurial spirit forms the full ying and yang of their budding bakery business. Stealing milk late at night from the titular cow to make their trademark “oily cakes” (doughnuts), when will enough be enough for them to move on to San Francisco to make their fortunes? How far will they push their risky enterprise?

“I taste London in this cake,” says Toby Jones’ chief factor – a figure who holds dominion over this small community, and from whose cow the milk is purloined. The simplest of pleasures bring the greatest moments of joy in Reichardt’s latest film. Rich memories of home – wherever that may be – flood back to pastures new. But when competition, ambition and greed muddy the waters of a blissful, yet unsustainable existence, time and tide must move on, the American Dream always just out of reach.

Reviewed on: 27 May 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.

Read more First Cow reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****

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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