The great American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt delivers her sweetest and funniest film to date, a tale of friendship blossoming between two lonely men eeking out an existence in the Old West
Life on the American frontier is hard in Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature First Cow. But, as in the 21st century, a little human companionship goes a long way to making it bearable. Reichardt lays out this theory quite unambiguously with the William Blake quote – “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship” – which opens the film and sees the great Romantic poet suggesting the relationships we form with our fellow travellers on Earth to be complex, beautiful, life-giving things.
After an intriguing prologue set in modern-day Oregon, featuring Alia Shawkat and a startling discovery in a forest, we’re seamlessly transported back two centuries, give or take, to the same corner of the Pacific Northwest. From here we follow Cookie (John Magaro), a mild-mannered cook indentured to a small fur trapper outfit, foraging for food.
As well as seeking out some delicious-looking fungi and berries, which Cookie gingerly places in his bindle like they’re precious jewels, he also stumbles across King-Lu, an itinerant worker from China, who’s hiding in the bushes starving, naked, and on the run from a gang of Russian brigands. A few simple acts of kindness – Cookie gives King-Lu some food, a blanket, a corner of his tent in which to rest his head, and a means of escaping his pursuers – forms a bond between the men that’s rekindled sometime later in a hardscrabble settlement where roles are reversed, and King-Lu is able to offer Cookie a roof over his head.
Reichardt visualises their fast friendship with a wittily staged scene of the boys making house after King-Lu invites Cookie back to his cobbled-together shack to split a bottle of whisky. While the host inexpertly chops wood for the fire, Cookie takes the initiative to start straightening up the cabin, sweeping up leaves from the dirt floor and airing out a dusty rug. The finishing touch is some freshly picked wild flowers for the mantel. We’d think, “get a room”, if they hadn’t already got one.
Reichardt isn’t a director known for her comic chops, but First Cow is scattered with such moments of warm humour, with toxic masculinity usually the brunt of the joke. Midway through a barfight, the bruiser who threw the first punch hands Cookie a basket containing his baby daughter to look after. And there’s fun to be had too when a tough army captain and the settlement’s cruel Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – who’s not above murdering a few employees to motivate the others – drop their macho facades for a few seconds to gossip about Parisian fashion trends.
The only significant female character in First Cow is the bovine of the title, who we first see floating regally upriver on a raft as people look on open-mouthed. She’s the property of the Chief Factor, who’s severely disappointed by her milk production. We, the audience, know exactly why her udders runneth dry: because Cookie has been surreptitiously milking her after dark in a caper thought up by wily entrepreneur King-Lu, who realises that the sweet cakes Cookie can whip up using the ill-gotten lactose will sell like hotcakes at the town’s underresourced marketplace.
Despite her slow-burn style, Reichardt is extremely skilled at building suspense. When the Chief Factor tries Cookie’s baked goods for the first time and is transported back to civilisation (“I taste London in this cake,” he purrs after his initial bite), it’s only a matter of time before he works out what the “secret ingredient” is.
As well as being Reichardt’s sweetest and funniest film to date, First Cow also acts as self-homage, seemingly tying together the threads that run through her entire career. The film muses on capitalism’s rampant disregard for nature (like in Night Moves) and the precarious lives of people forced into a peripatetic existence to find employment (like in Wendy and Lucy). And as in Meek’s Cutoff, our notion of the Old West is challenged and upended at every opportunity in First Cow. The bond between Cookie and King-Lu, meanwhile, chimes with Reichardt’s other tale of tender bromance: Old Joy.
The American Dream that King-Lu and Cookie seek in the early-19th century proves to be no more attainable than the notion of it in 2020. Reichardt’s innate humanity, however, means her downbeat message lands with a sprinkling of hope. Wealth isn’t just measured in the number of silver pieces in your pockets, but also in the quality of the friends you’re willing to share your fortune with.
First Cow had its International Premiere at Berlinale 2020
Released in the UK 28 May by MUBI