First Cow Review
First Cow opens with a quote from English poet, William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” On the surface, it seems to address how, as human beings, our natural "home" is in the warm, mutually beneficial relationships we build with others, but those words "nest" and (particularly) "web" grate a little. Perhaps friendship is more complex than it first appears; maybe it can also be limiting, stifling – in some circumstances, even a trap. It's a knotty question Kelly Reichardt deftly explores in her first film since 2016’s Certain Women.
Seasoned fans of the director will find much here that is familiar. First Cow is loosely based on a novel by Jon Raymond, and he and Reichardt share co-writing credits – as they did on Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Night Moves (2013), and Meek's Cutoff (2010). Like the latter film, it is set amongst frontier folk, in the first half of the 19th Century in the Pacific Northwest, and exquisitely shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt in the Academy ratio. Its pace is leisurely, its eye often trained on the natural world and the slow tempo of the everyday. Like Old Joy, First Cow centres on a male friendship, although the one explored here is new and full of possibilities rather than threadbare with age. Reichardt clearly has little interest in reinventing what she does; just refining and perfecting it.
Kind-hearted drifter Cookie (John Magaro) is employed, as his name implies, to do the cooking for a grizzly team of travelling fur trappers. Initially, though, we see little of his culinary skills as he is useless at finding food and, supplies of buffalo steaks and soda bread exhausted, his fatigued and fractious colleagues seem to subsist on little more than berries and mushrooms. Out on one of his numerous foraging missions, Cookie encounters a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (British actor Orion Lee), shivering and naked in the undergrowth, and on the run from a band of murderous Russians.
Despite initially mistaking Lu for "an Indian" and admitting he's never seen a Chinese person before, the two become friends and Cookie soon moves into the ramshackle hut he calls home. Noticing that a dairy cow – the first in the territory – has recently arrived and grazes in a nearby meadow, they immediately recognise a business opportunity and start stealing the creature’s milk under cover of night.
Cookie, who, it turns out, is a very fine baker, uses the ill-gotten gains to make “oily cakes” to sell at the local trading post, and the profits start to pile up. However, the delicious comestibles soon attract the attention of Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – the wealthy owner of said bovine and a man surely not foolish enough to believe the cakes contain a "secret Chinese ingredient", rather than milk purloined from the very animal he's brought all the way up river from San Francisco.
King Lu and Cookie make quite a pair. Lu lives on his wits, his head buzzing with ambition ("I see something in this land I haven't seen before"); he's a practised hustler, a self-confessed killer, and clearly not always on first-name terms with the truth. Biddable Cookie follows along in his wake, their relationship neatly summed up when they meet for the second time at a local watering hole. A bar fight has broken out and Cookie has been charged by one of the participants with keeping an eye on a baby left on the counter. Lu wants to head home and persuades his friend to abandon the infant ("Leave him... he's fine") without a single word of dissent.
At times, they act like a traditional married couple, something played for laughs from the moment Cookie first sets foot in Lu's shack; the Chinese chopping wood outside, while his new housemate sweeps the floor and tidies up, later bringing flowers to brighten up the place. Their money-making scheme is an amusing inversion of Old West criminality and masculinity – Cookie and Lu don’t hold up trains (like Butch and Sundance) or rob banks (like the James gang)… they steal milk and bake cakes, to which Cookie even adds honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. First Cow doesn't so much seek to subvert the traditional Western as to point and laugh at it.
Reichardt deliberately pushes Native American characters to the periphery of her film. Displaced, overtaken, and given voice only once in a bleakly comedic scene featuring Certain Women's Lily Gladstone, they are little more than extras in their own story, innocents whose lives are being marched all over by supposed progress.
Indeed, themes of exploitation loom large here and are exemplified by the titular dairy cow; a creature transported hundreds of miles, its mate and calf dying in transit, so a homesick but wealthy Englishman can have milk in his tea. It exists, too, in the relationship between Cookie and Lu. That genuine affection exists between the pair there is little doubt, but you do wonder which of them gets the most out of their business arrangement. Cookie has a talent and, being the one who milks the cow, takes the most risks. Apart from providing a few pots and pans and a dash of entrepreneurial zeal, what does Lu bring to the table exactly?
Beyond the dynamics of that central relationship, what really makes First Cow tick is the contrast that exists between the gentle, leisurely way in which Reichardt’s story unfolds, and the grim discovery made in a brief modern-day segment (featuring Animals’ Alia Shawkat) at the very start of the film. Even as you luxuriate in the joys of Cookie and Lu’s milk-pinching antics, the tactile authenticity of the world Reichardt (re)creates, and William Wyler's delicate score, there’s a sense of dread spooling away in the background that is impossible to shake.
It is one that becomes instantly more oppressive with the arrival of Jones' Chief Factor, whose seeming cruelty ("Even a properly rendered death can be... a highly motivating spectacle for the indolent") raises the possibility that Cookie and King's meeting and friendship might turn out to be more curse than blessing. A nest, a web, a trap.
First Cow is now available to purchase on US VOD platforms, and to rent from July 21. A UK release date will follow
First Cow (2019)
Dir: Kelly Reichardt | Cast: Alia Shawkat, Ewen Bremner, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones | Writers: Jonathan Raymond (novel), Jonathan Raymond (screenplay by), Kelly Reichardt (screenplay by)