Film Review: First Cow – Director: Kelly Reichardt

First Cow – America in the early nineteenth century and the Land of Opportunity seems wide open and promising for two young men who bond in a moment of danger and adversity. They strike upon an unlikely path to wealth but there is always a sense that somehow fate won’t allow it.

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones.

The Pacific North-West and the wilds of Oregon around the 1820’s. Adventurers and fortune-seekers are there for gold and beaver pelts.

First CowWe first meet Otis Cookie Figowitz (Magaro), the camp cook to a small group of mean-spirited and rough beaver hunters. They have a barely suppressed rage at Cookie for not being able to come up with enough vittles in that wild environment.

He keeps his head low. One evening he stumbles across a naked man hiding in the bush. King-Lu is a young Chinese man also looking for that promise of wealth in America. He is hiding from a group of Russian seamen seeking revenge, as King-Lu shot and killed one of them.

Cookie shelters him in his own tent and then keeps him concealed whilst they travel during the day. Long enough for him to find a route to safety eventually down a river.

The script has been adapted from an acclaimed first novel by Jonathan Raymond, The Half Life. A frequent collaborator with film-maker Kelly Reichardt, the screenplay is credited to both of them.

First Cow

The landscape is the actual main character for the first quarter of the two-hour movie. Lush, green and damp. Tracking shots around a spectacular and picturesque river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt spends a lot of time on the natural beauty in close-up, and you almost sense you’re watching the grass grow.

It may be a little too slow. Eventually we end up at a make-shift town which seems to resemble a refugee camp. Damp and muddy. Characters appear briefly and their stories are barely hinted at. A fiddle player. An old man with a crow constantly on his shoulder. A lone young Indian girl doing chores the solitary female up to this point.

This is an all-male dominion and any women who briefly appear do not make any impression. That would explain the general meanness of tone and underlying violence that Reichardt manages to convey. The land is beautiful and majestic. The men are generally ugly in spirit and heart.

Of course, there’s a saloon. Gambling and bad tempers. The Director is attempting to recreate the atmosphere of Deadwood in short cinematic phrases.

Our two protagonists meet again in the pub, and King-Lu has transformed into a well-dressed worldly traveler.

It is close to half-way before the First Cow makes her grand entrance. In fact, she is the only female character we get to know in this movie.

She has been brought over by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy Englishman who owns the only proper homestead in the area.

First Cow

King-Lu has invited Cookie back for a drink at his rough hut and immediately they end up living together as friends. They share their dreams. King-Lu is the worldliest and senses the underlying and boundless riches of America. Cookie is an orphan who has lived a hard life. But he has learned how to be a good cook.

They see the new cow. Cookie shares a thought that milk would make divine pastries out in this mean environment. A plan is devised to procure this. What Cookie makes immediately sells and becomes coveted and craved after. Money comes and builds up quickly as people queue daily to be able to secure one. It seems a bit improbable but what it illustrates possibly is how much a little sweetness is valued amongst harsh mean men. Sweetness produced from a female.

There is similarity to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men in the themes of male bonding and loyalty amidst cruel and cynical men. And a similar fatalism about what is eventually going to happen.

Of course, the Chief Factor gets to taste the wonderful pastries and is hooked. He also worries that his cow does not appear to produce much milk.

In very simple but elegant fashion the story becomes a funny heist movie which gets more and more fraught.

Quite slow-moving especially over the first half, but on the big screen the natural beauty of the landscape carries it. It does set up the emotional impact of the second half, and where nobility and decency lie amongst mice and men.

Rev Orange Peel