Life & Culture

Film review: First Cow

Don't miss this wonderful film, says Linda Marric


Over the last decade, Kelly Reichardt’s films have come to symbolise a new American independent cinema with similarities and aesthetics comparable to classic Italian neorealism. In her acclaimed feature Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt recounted the harsh conditions met by pioneers travelling through Oregon in the early 1800s, a theme she revisits in her latest film.

First Cow opens on a prelude set in the present day in which a young woman walking her dog stumbles across two skeletons lying side by side in a shallow grave. In 1820, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a timid cook, is travelling in Oregon with a group of rowdy fur-trappers. One night, Cookie befriends and offers shelter to King-Lu (Orion Lee), an amiable Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a man.

Weeks later, the two reunite and spend several days at Lu’s shack bonding over their respective dreams of future riches. The duo hatch a plan to steal milk from a cow newly acquired by a wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones) to make baked goods and sell at market. As word gets around about his fruitful enterprise, Cookie is approached by said Englishman who, unaware of the provenance of the chef’s main ingredient, hires him to make a cake for a tea party.

Reichardt presents a gorgeous tale of friendship, strife and entrepreneurship. Using her trademark minimalist style, she and regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond have adapted Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life with the commendable subtlety we’ve come to expect from them. First Cow finds tenderness, kindness and humanity in the most uncivilised places, all the while broaching the callousness and hegemony of the class system in the old West.

Elevated by two faultlessly understated performances courtesy of Magaro and Lee, First Cow is both heartfelt and engaging, making it Reichardt’s best film to date. Never has a film about two losers and the platonic love they have for each other felt more moving or more engaging. Simply wonderful.

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