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Film Review: First Cow

1 June 21 words: Sebastian Mann

Kelly Reichardt’s plainly charming Western takes a slow amble through the business life of the frontier…

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Evie the cow
Running time: 121 minutes

Set in 1820s Oregon, First Cow follows an unlikely friendship between an inward chef, “Cookie” (John Margaro) and a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee), who hides in the young cook’s tent one night while on the run from some Russians. 

Lu escapes by the river, and by chance they later reunite in a tavern. They quickly become close friends, sharing ambitions to own a farm and run a bakery. With the arrival of a milk-cow, belonging to the wealthy Chief Factor (the brilliant Toby Jones), the two see a money-making opportunity. The cow is the only cow ‒ and, indeed, the first cow – in the region, and so, at night, they secretly milk the cow so they can sell baked goods, like sweet butter biscuits, to the locals, with no competition. 

First Cow is slow but rewarding. The closest comparison point would perhaps be to Robert Altman’s wintery 1971 masterpiece, McCabe & Mrs Miller, both portraits of struggling frontiersmen simply trying to fashion a business out in the middle of nowhere. It may appear twee or perhaps novel on the surface, but Reichardt’s latest is anything but. 

It’s a deeply melancholic and minimally told film, taking place right as “history arrives”. That is, according to the pair, the appeal of frontier life: history hasn’t arrived yet, the soil is fresh and the opportunity boundless. But, as is the case in all the best Westerns, everyone is doomed to the same fate. 

Their venture proves tremendously successful. Soon, the Chief Factor becomes intrigued by the highly profitable fresh arrivals, and begins to inquire. He tastes in the biscuits the taste of London, of home, blinding him to the fact that he’s the one being robbed from.

Lee and Margaro are fantastic as the downtrodden but gradually more hopeful leads, with so much of the film relying on their off-beat, tender chemistry

As a film about the futility of the American Dream – of course, hardly an original topic but very much a satisfyingly fresh slant – it works surprisingly well, but it’s an even better film about friendship. Again, hardly an original basis but told here with a wonderfully unique style and tone. Lee and Margaro are fantastic as the downtrodden but gradually more hopeful leads, with so much of the film relying on their off-beat, tender chemistry. Both brilliantly inhabit their roles, finding comfort in each other’s presence and in sharing the same dreams. 

The director is no stranger to the homely forests and landscapes of Oregon. Her 2010 Western, Meek’s Cutoff recounted a doomed journey along the Oregon Trail, alongside her modern dramas Wendy & Lucy and Old Joy, all filmed on location like First Cow. Screenwriter Johnathan Raymond is adapting from his own novel, The Half Life, with Reichardt sharing a co-writing credit, continuing their long run of collaborations. Many of his Oregon-set stories have served the basis of Reichardt’s films, notably the 2013 thriller Night Moves

The intimate nooks of the woodlands are beautifully captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who shot Reichardt’s other features. The film is cosily framed in the boxy ‘Academy’ aspect ratio of 4:3, rich with a deep, earthy palette. It’s gorgeous to behold, although at times some of the darker night-time photography can be quite hard to make out, and you’re left listening to disembodied voices. This may well be an issue exclusive to my viewing (and I hope it is!), but it proved a little frustrating. 

First Cow is a fantastically unique Western, and one of the most endearing in recent years. It has a real mixture of charm and grit, blending harsh reality with humble optimism. There’s a lyrical understanding of the genre and of our changing perspectives, as Reichardt shifts the focus away from the well-worn romantic final days of grizzled gunslingers to a story of two lowly guys struggling in an impossible game.

Did you know? The original title for the film was the similarly ornate “Slow Elk,” derived from the name given to cows by Oregon’s First People. The term survives today as slang used by big game hunters across the U.S. 

First Cow is out now in cinemas

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