It can take a while to get into Kelly Reichardt’s measured rhythms. Her films gently ease into their plot-lines, starting with atmosphere and character first. Once you are acquainted the effect is entrancing. First Cow is no exception, a simple tale that is just utterly. Whimsical with shades of deeply earned melancholy, First Cow is another coup for distribution studio A24.
Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a chef traveling with a group of felt trappers. Born in Maryland, he has traversed the still-emergent American nation towards Oregon. Definitely the odd one out of the group — comprised of gruff, manly men — he is on the search for food when he comes across the strange King Lu (Orion Lee). Originally mistaken him for Native Indian, King Lu is a well-traveled Chinese man currently on the run from Russian bandits. Cookie shelters him for the night before leaving him for a ramshackle frontier town.
The production design is superb, the rickety, makeshift drinking holes and sleeping cabins expertly evoking the era, complemented by gorgeous 35mm cinematography. Cookie heads into one inn for a whiskey, where he meets King Lu once again. He is now a completely different man: cosmopolitan, ambitious and well-dressed where before he was scared and had no clothes on.
Reichardt doesn’t introduce her premise till deep into her the movie. It’s a big cow, after all. But the beast brings deep importance: it’s the first cow in the region. The English Lord (Toby Jones) of a manor has brought it in so he can have milk in his tea. For Cookie and Orion, the cow is their gold: continuing precious milk that can be converted into tasty snacks. But when their enterprise grows and grows, the boys find themselves in increasingly hot water.
A lo-fi take on Shanghai Noon, First Cow is a frontier tale with a difference, taking a slow, thoughtful approach to a genre that is known for its shootouts, merciless killers and naked ambition. What’s so endearing is the modesty of the two friends. All they really want to do is own a hotel; not even a fancy one at that, just a place for perpetual travelers — such as themselves — to lay their weary heads. This makes them quite relatable figures, their struggles under capitalism much the same as anyone else.
The delight is in the small details. When Cookie is in the river washing clothes, another man passes by on a boat with a dog at the stern. It’s a brief moment of loveliness with no effect whatsoever upon the plot. Additionally, the violence so synonymous with the era is left almost completely off-screen, Reichardt somewhat keeping things light and kind throughout. Even the villains have their charm, walking around having conversations completely unrelated to the main plot, allowing us to see them as people instead of just characters needed to fulfill a plot.
First Cow is like a cake. It first appears like nothing is going on, just a mixture of different liquids swirling together. But left to bake over 2 hours, what you get is a scrumptious concoction that is sure to leave a smile on your face. What a lovely, lovely movie.
First Cow screens at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.