First Cow

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Kelly Reichardt’s films often operate at two levels. At the surface one story plays out, while somewhere to one side, and often as a comment on the first story, something different is going on. First Cow could really be called First Love, since it’s the story of two men who meet in difficult circumstances and then form a bond that lasts until death.

What it looks like, though, especially at first, is a western, a story of a cook who’s travelling with hard-bitten fur trappers. They’re all out in the forest and there isn’t enough food. And even if there was, the trappers don’t seem to like what the cook’s been serving. There’s a suggestion that they just don’t like him. He’s just too diffident, withdrawn. One evening, after yet another slanging match about the “vittlin’” has died down, Cookie (John Magaro) chances upon a runaway Chinese man in the woods, hungry and desperate not to be given up to a band of Russians looking for him.

Cookie keeps King-Lu (Orion Lee) safe from harm and, later, they deepen their acquaintance at a frontier town where the two of them just happen to meet again.

Reichardt’s image of the frontier is a familiar one, especially if you’ve seen her Meek’s Cutoff. It’s dirty and lawless, but there’s also a keen focus on domestic detail: the wooden buckets, the thick, warm clothing, rough planks, sacking, things made from other, recognisable, things, like the whisk that Cookie uses when he and King-Lu go into the cake business – it’s made of little sticks tied to a bigger stick.

The cakes are the product of King-Lu’s restless drive to make money, somehow, anyhow. But to make these cakes, which look a lot like donuts, Cookie needs milk, and the only source of that is the only cow in this part of the world, and it belongs to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), whose the conduit through which all good and bad things pass. Round here he is the law.

Which explains the title, it’s the first cow in the area, and brings us to the bit where the trouble starts. The Chief Factor is a cruelly utilitarian man like something out of Dickens – “Any question that cannot be counted is not worth the asking,” he says self-importantly to an Army captain he’s entertaining and attempting to impress (with cakes!).

What the First Factor doesn’t know is that the reason why his cow is not giving as much milk as he expected is because Cookie and King-Lu are sneaking into his field each night and milking it.

Toby Jones as the First Factor
Toby Jones as the First Factor

A showdown, a reckoning, is obviously going to come, but Reichardt’s interest isn’t so much much in this story as the way of life in this bustling town, where all manner of ethnicities have come to buy, sell or trade.

Thanks to Reichardt’s regular DP, Christopher Blauvelt, it’s a dark world, of densely gloomy interiors, faintly reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller and definitely worth watching either on a big screen in a dark cinema, or at least at home with the lights all turned off.

Also barely creeping into view is the deepening relationship between King-Lu and Cookie – who picks a bunch of flowers to brighten up King-Lu’s crude cabin when he’s invited to move in.

Is it a gay love story? Maybe, maybe not. Relationships aren’t always sexual, but as Reichardt’s camera patiently details the minutiae of Cookie and King-Lu’s daily life, we’re watching something tender being put together in front of our eyes.

Since the film opens with the discovery of a pair of skeletons in the forest by a 21st-century mushroom forager, we have strong suspicions where the story of King-Lu and Cookie is going, and once they’ve embarked on the nightly illicit milkings, we’ve got a pretty good idea how they get there.

One of the marvels of this incredibly understated film is that somehow Reichardt builds real tension in a series of late scenes set out in the woods, where Cookie and King-Lu are being pursued (but not particularly urgently) by the First Factor’s men.

And there Reichardt leaves them, in a sudden fade to black, as if to say “this film isn’t about the chase”. And it isn’t.

First Cow – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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