First Cow (12A)
First Cow (12A)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 122 minutes
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Ewen Bremner, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Lily Gladstone
Synopsis: A gripping and glorious story of friendship and petty crime in the Old West. A taciturn loner and skilled cook has travelled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful but precarious cake-making business, the longevity of which is reliant upon the clandestine participation of a wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow – the very first, and only, in the territory.
Award-winning director Kelly Reichardt [Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010)] returns with her eagerly awaited seventh feature First Cow and her fifth set in the Pacific Northwest, which radiates with a similar sense of graceful, fragile melancholy, with a script co-written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymond’s 2004 source novel The Half-Life.
The idea of friendship as a naturally occurring phenomenon—the place where humans make their home—gives the film its powerful emotional core, and through this simple premise, Reichardt paints an authentic portrait of harsh frontier life in the early nineteenth century, depicting the immense, unsettling quietude of rural America and interrogating the very foundations on which the country was built.
This wonderful, slow moving masterpiece is prefaced in the modern day by a woman discovering two skeletons buried in Oregon woodland.
The action switches to the nineteenth century where two travellers – taciturn loner and skilled cook, Cookie (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee) – are on the run from a band of vengeful hunters in the 1820s Northwest. They dream of striking it rich, but their tenuous plan to make their fortune on the frontier comes to rely on the secret use of a wealthy landowner’s (Toby Jones) prized dairy cow.
Soon the two collaborate on a successful but precarious cake-making business, the longevity of which is reliant upon this prized milking cow – the very first, and only, in the territory.
Redefining the idea of what a western can be and set among outcasts on the edge of capitalism’s grasp, First Cow is a rare tale of the blossoming of a heartfelt male friendship, and one told with sublime gentleness and touching compassion.
In addition to its nuanced dual character study, First Cow also acts as a consideration and critique of American capitalism, examining the ruthless logic of supply and demand without exalting it and emerging as an ambivalent meditation on the country’s famous entrepreneurial spirit.
Combining sumptuous cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt, using the boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio (also used in Reichardt’s previous period piece Meek’s Cutoff in 2010), a superb ensemble cast and atmospheric music, this gently melancholic tale of pilfered dairy, sweet cakes and old-fashioned camaraderie is the celebrated magnum opus of one of cinema’s most vital independent filmmakers.
First Cow is released in the UK on 28 May in cinemas and on MUBI in July
Images courtesy of A24