Anybody who’s seen a Kelly Reichardt film will appreciate the irony of UK audiences having to wait nearly two years to see First Cow, her elegiac look at American life past and present. Her slices of Americana take as long as they take – not an approach that chimes with everybody but, if you’ve yet to experience one, this may be her most accessible. And best.
In 1820’s Oregon, Cookie (John Magaro) has joined a group of fur trappers as he travels west. A natural loner, he doesn’t fit in, maintaining his place only because of his skills as a cook. A chance encounter with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) results in a friendship, and the two go into business together. Their enterprise turns out to be more lucrative than they ever imagined, but it does have a downside: it’s based on the milk produced by the only cow in the area, which belongs to the local bigwig. Milk that they’re stealing.
It all starts modestly, with a young woman finding a shallow grave as she walks her dog in the woods. And the tone continues throughout the film as we’re taken through the story behind her discovery, with its unexpectedly seductive muted colours, lighting and voices. The characteristically leisurely pace allows us ample time to get to know the two men – the business savvy Lu with his big dreams, the more unassuming Cookie who buys into them and is prepared to risk everything by antagonising a powerful enemy. Entrepreneurship in an early form, showing that commerce and capitalism have hardly changed over the years. But the backdrop is far from the towering edifices of Wall Street: instead a mighty, fast moving river carves up the rough landscape, constantly connecting the past with the present.
The examination of the friendship between the two men is at the core of the film, two misfits who are so easy in each other’s company that sharing a house, with all that entails, takes on a natural rhythm. The dialogue is lean, sparse but with a simple poetry of its own – like the film itself, where the woodlands are painted with an impressionist brush – so that, when the pompous Chief Factor (Toby Jones) samples one of Cookie’s cakes and wistfully pronounces he “can taste London” in it, the prickle in your eyes is inevitable. As is your pleasure when the two friends start to make their little plan work: they’re so engaging that you simply don’t care that it’s illegal. Your sympathies are totally with them.
What sounds like a sombre story has more humour than you’d expect, from the dog in the rough-hewn town that can’t keep its nose out of Cookie’s bag of cakes to the Chief Factor clad only in long johns rushing out into the night when he learns his milk is being stolen. It’s not of the laugh out loud variety, but it certainly lifts the overall mood. The acting is inevitably understated, but full of delightful, delicate details that tell so much about the characters and the personal histories that have brought them to what is still a wild environment.
Male friendship, business acumen and, ultimately, the desire to both survive and thrive all come together in what is a richly satisfying experience. First Cow will wash over you and, at times, sooth your soul. It’s been more than worth the wait.
Drama |USA, 2019 | 12A | MUBI | 28th May 2021 (UK Cinema), 9th July 2021 (MUBI) | Dir. Kelly Reichardt | John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Alia Shawcat.