First Cow

First Cow ★★★½


First Cow is an obvious allegory about the capitalist foundations on which modern America is built on. The word capital is even exclaimed by one of the characters a couple of times, and while he uses it as an alternative to “excellent”, the underlying intention behind its’ use is pretty obvious.

After a brief, modern-day prologue (which is far too briskly rendered and not as mysterious as intended) in which a woman walking her dog near a river makes a startling skeletal discovery (apparently the source novel, “The Half Life” by Jonathan Raymond has a full timeline set in the present day which is pared down to this scene), the action switches to the wild plains of Oregon in the 1820s. 

Cookie Figowitz (Magaro) is a young, timid cook travelling with a bunch of rambunctious beaver trappers who comes across a naked Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee), hiding in the wilderness. Lu is on the run from a Russian gang after he killed one of their number in revenge for the death of one of his friends. The kind, soft-spoken Cookie gives Lu shelter for the night. When they later meet by chance after Cookie’s stint with the trappers is over, Lu invites Cookie to stay with him and they concoct a scheme to steal milk from the local big-wig’s cow, the very first one in the territory.
With the pilfered milk Cookie makes delicious cakes that the pair sell to the keen locals, including Chief Factor (Jones, typically brilliant and very funny), the cow’s stern owner and boss trader in the area. Cookie dreams of running a bakery and maybe even a hotel in San Francisco , and they aim to sell enough cakes to make some money in order to set off on the journey towards achieving that goal and get out of Oregon before the Chief Factor catches on.

With careful pacing and immaculately mounted scenes full of earthy period detail (aided by beautiful photography) leading to First Cow thrumming with tactile energy, its’ warm tone shines through as Lu and Cookie’s friendship blossoms while they are swindling the Chief Factor with their nocturnal bovine burglary. It’s also quite funny at times, especially in scenes where the duo con the locals into believing their goods are made with a secret Chinese ingredient which give the harsh frontier era some much-needed levity, while Trainspotting’s Bremner is a small delight as one of the Factor’s henchmen. Whether its dirt under the fingernails of a large bearded man carrying a baby in a basket in a saloon, or a Native American girl heaving a bucket of milk that splashes onto her mauve dress with a gray-white puppy running after her, or the titular cow arriving by raft, or René Auberjonois standing still with a raven on his shoulder First Cow pulses with painterly and poetic details.

But the core of the film is Lu and Cookie’s relationship. Magaro and Lee are excellent as the criminal pals who share a yearning for a better life and we desperately want them to succeed. It’s fun seeing them live together as a surrogate married couple. A pivotal scene of them nesting, Cookie beating the dust out of a rug while Lu chops wood (which features the best shot composition of the film, using an open door and a window) drives home that this is narrative centred on sensitive, practical men in harmony with one another. Lu is in thrall to the American Dream, and often talks about how he can ascend to a more monied station in life.

Though Cookie and Lu are under increasing danger of their bovine burglary being found out, there is almost no tension relating to this (especially bearing in mind what is shown in the film’s prologue). Just a number of conflicting elements being allowed by Reichardt to play out in her trademark understated naturalism. The real tension (if “tension” is the correct word, bearing in mind that the tone is pretty serene throughout), is between the haves and the have-nots. There are also visual and thematic parallels with Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (a film which left me underwhelmed) as well as Reichardt’s own Old Joy

My list of 2020 releases (ranked)
My list of Kelly Reichardt films (ranked)

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