Set in 1820’s Northwest, First Cow tells the story of two travellers. The first being Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a taciturn chef who is travelling with a group of fur trappers. The second being King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a Russian man. The two eventually become friends over intimate discussions of their dreams of wealth and on what they want to do after their time on the frontier.
Soon, the two discover the appearance of a landowner’s prized dairy cow and they decide in order for them to get rich quick, they will use it as a source of milk to make delicious baked goods for the people in the settlement. The scheme becomes profitable and it takes the people by storm. However, the actions of the travellers come with consequences as the factors of greed and capitalism come into play.
First Cow is the latest film from acclaimed American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who is best known for her understated dramas that revolve around the people in small communities like Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women. Her stories are often focused on characters who are essentially looking for a better quality of life and that through-line continues on in First Cow.
The first twenty minutes of the film do feel quite slow at first. However, that is Reichardt’s way of immersing the audience with the atmosphere and mood in her storytelling; which is mesmerizing and immersive from frame one. With Christopher Blauvelt’s contemplative cinematography (that brings forth a sense of ambience in the stillness of the frame) and the sparse yet striking score by William Tyler, Reichardt manages to the impact of small life moments with remarkable dexterity and ample weight. The life moment on the forefront here in First Cow is male friendship.
That is not to say that Reichardt sugarcoats the tribulations in the select period of American history. The divide in social class, corporate greed, xenophobia and colonialism are addressed here. But unlike other films that rely on more blatant filmmaking techniques and storytelling that tells the audience what to think like dramatic monologues or syrupy music; Reichardt relies more on empathy toward her characters and gentle humour.
There are many moments of humour sprinkled throughout the film that poke fun at the established norms of said time. King-Lu questions whether the landowner of the cow Chief Factor (played by the great Toby Jones) knows where the milk is coming from, and Cookie replies that the rich never think that they can be stolen from. Or when the divide between the British and Native Americans come into play, aided by Chief Factor’s wife (played by Lily Gladstone, who worked in Reichardt’s Certain Women), who plays an interpreter between the two sides.
She maintains absolute control over the tone of the story that when the characters face a sense of danger, Reichardt manages to make you feel for them that you do not realize how much you care for Cookie and King-Lu, even when the stakes are seemingly low. Her assured handling in her storytelling is so impressive that the perfectly handled conclusion will stay with you long after it is over.
It also helps immensely that the two leads give impressive performances. Magaro lends a sense of gravitas to the role of Cookie that makes his meek attitude rather soulful than dull. His “conversations” with the titular cow are some of the highlights of the film due to Magaro’s performance and how he is able to convey such optimism within those moments. Lee exudes charisma and cunning in the role of King-Lu, making his character almost enigmatic in a way that makes the audience question whether he is loyal to his friend or to his own well-being. Their chemistry is believable, genuine and eventually heartfelt when the drama kicks in.
Overall, Reichardt works her calm, meditative magic to deliver what could be her best film to date. First Cow is a beautifully majestic piece of work that details the blossoming of a wonderful friendship during a tumultuous period of American history. Highly recommended.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
First Cow is showing in cinemas now, courtesy of Madman.