First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½


Kelly Reichardt has spent her career quietly becoming one of American cinema's finest observers of life on the fringes of society, going right back to her underseen debut feature River of Grass (1994) (shameless plug for my previous review #1). First Cow continues and deepens that trend. Another of her "pocket symphonies" (I read that phrase used in a magazine recently to describe her work and I just love it), First Cow is, similarly to Meek's Cutoff, a tale of frontier life from the perspective of people who would usually be relegated to the margins of the story. Co-written by Reichardt and her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond (and based on Raymond's book The Half-Life), First Cow features at its center a touching and beautifully observed portrayal of male friendship between its protagonists Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), who meet by chance in the forests of barely-civilised 1820s Oregon. Both are outcasts in such a harsh, uncompromising place: Cookie because of his shy, awkward, gentle manner; Lu because he is a Chinese immigrant. As friendship develops between the men, so does a business plan: to steal milk from their township's first and only cow (Evie, she is adorable) owned by a wealthy man known as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), to use to make and sell baked goods. The film thus functions as a fable about loyalty and frontier spirit. It is also about the birth of capitalism, as encapsulated in the form of Evie (a natural resource, albeit here with a personality and will all of her own) and the two contrasting visions for wealth and prosperity: on the one hand, the gentle, respectful form of exploitation practiced by Cookie and Lu (emphasising the care that Cookie takes as he milks Evie) and on the other hand the more aggressive brand of capitalism that the Chief Factor seems to prefer (in one conversation we witness him hold court about how excessive punishment of labourers can increase productivity through fear).

Importantly, Reichardt throws light on other people whose stories, like Cookie and Lu's, are not typically told. And so within this muddy, cold-bitten world we meet (often fleetingly) others trying to survive and thrive including Native Americans, fellow immigrant frontiersmen, and even the titular cow herself (interestingly, she is about the only female presence in the film). Even the Chief Factor, nominally (very nominally) the "baddie" of the piece, gets a lovely moment of transcendence early on when he tries one of Cookie and Lou's oily cakes: "This tastes like London..." he says, tears in his eyes. Indeed, the sight of tough, burly, bearded men lining up like excited teens at a Justin Bieber concert just to taste one of the famous cakes (a reminder of home, of childhood, of better times) really sums up the whole film for me: sweet, funny and strangely touching all at the same time.

In some respects, First Cow acts as a sort of inverse version of the male friendship that formed the core of Old Joy (2006) (shameless plug for my previous review #2). If that film was about the sad, quietly tragic self-implosion of a long-standing friendship coming to an end, this one presents the start of a friendship, emphasising between Cookie and Lu the sort of connection and chemistry that the protagonists of Old Joy once had but have now lost. Reading these two films together, disparate though they may be in terms of time period (although bearing in mind the forest-based denouement of Old Joy, perhaps not in terms of setting) is quite rewarding in the way they provide different angles on the thorny (and frequently grossly oversimplified) matter of male friendships.

Whether the film can be read as possibly implying a romantic attraction between Cookie and Lu is more ambiguous, in my view- although bearing in mind the surely deliberate homage to the famous "A Woman's Touch" scene from Calamity Jane in the part of the film where the boys move in together I can certainly see how that argument might be made.

As with all of Reichardt's films, First Cow unfurls gently and patiently before the audience, using the intangible qualities of atmosphere, mood and tone as the primary storytelling techniques. In this, she has the assistance of stunning photography of the rugged American landscapes (courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt) and detailed, lived-in production design, as well as a quite lovely, plaintive score by William Tyler. And the film's boxy 4:3 aspect ratio suited it really well, providing a degree of additional intimacy.

With not a single second out of place or wasted, First Cow might be slow-paced but is never boring, although I can see how those who have not been able to get on the same wavelength of Reichardt's previous work might well think it so- her style certainly isn't for everyone. I found it to be empathetic, moving and deeply, achingly compassionate. It is rare indeed that I find myself finishing a film and then wanting to immediately dive right back in but that's exactly how I felt about First Cow. I can't wait to see Cookie and Lu again.

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