We originally reviewed First Cow when A24 released the film in March 2020. Due to coronavirus-related shutdowns, the film was pulled from theaters. We’re republishing this review now that the film is available on VOD.
If only every film could achieve the sublime tenderness of First Cow.
As Kelly Reichardt’s latest film opens, a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in present-day Oregon comes across something unexpected: a skull underneath the forest foliage. Further digging reveals two full skeletons lying side by side, hand in hand. The image suggests tragedy, and likely violence, but it’s gentle, too. However these people died, whoever they were, they shared a connection.
That bond takes center stage as the rest of the film rewinds to 1820 and introduces Cookie (John Magaro), a cook who aspires to one day open a bakery or hotel, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a would-be entrepreneur on the run. When they first meet, Cookie is in the employ of a group of trappers heading to Fort Tillicum. They’re all ready to brawl at the slightest provocation, and they look down on Cookie for his gentle nature. King-Lu, wanted for avenging a friend’s murder, has shed all his clothing in an attempt to throw off his pursuers, and is defenseless in the wild. Rather than sounding an alarm, Cookie gives him a blanket and hides him.
What follows is deceptively simple. The two men team up, stealing milk so Cookie can make “oily cakes” to sell to traders and travelers. The milk comes from the first (and presently, only) cow in the territory, a beautiful Jersey owned by Fort Tillicum’s governor Chief Factor (Toby Jones). What’s impressive is what Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond based on his novel The Half Life, builds upon that apparent simplicity.
The meat of the story isn’t just Cookie and King-Lu’s tenuous success. Their story is a micro version of the American Dream, of supply and demand, of the arrival of so-called civilization to the American West. The conversations the two men have about what they’re doing — the balance between risk and reward, and how long they’ll have a monopoly — are applicable throughout history. Every enterprise must deal with the inescapable reach of capitalism and larger structures of power, as well as, on a less cynical note, the simple human desire for more than just the bare necessities.
Most importantly, there’s the human need for connection. The way Cookie and King-Lu’s story fits into a larger picture of American history isn’t as important, or as touching, as the way their relationship blooms onscreen. They’re both odd ducks in Fort Tillicum, where the ability to throw a punch and get rowdy is a dominant force in securing social status. King-Lu is more of a dreamer, while Cookie is more practical, but they’re kindred spirits, in spite of their occasional arguments.
That understanding emerges wordlessly in their first real moment alone. King-Lu goes about chopping wood outside his little house in the woods. Cookie initially stands awkwardly in the house, but then finds a broom and begins to sweep the floor. As King-Lu starts a fire, Cookie exits and returns with a handful of wild plants to form a makeshift bouquet. They’re still relative strangers, but however awkwardly, they figure out how to make their lives just a little brighter together.
Improbably, the movie ascends to even more touching heights than that scene of domesticity, as characters revel in the joy of things as simple as cinnamon and clafoutis. It’s the little things that make life worth living. Key to that rise is just how well Magaro and Lee suit each other. Magaro’s sad eyes and faintly scratchy voice convey a softness and warmth, as he politely chats with the cow as he milks it. His faint sense of uncertainty is offset by Lee’s self-assurance. Even when King-Lu experiences moments of doubt, Lee speaks with a reassuring timbre, and expertly turns the dial between King-Lu’s professional sharpness and his genuine affection for Cookie as their situation becomes more complicated.
The glimmer of tragedy on their horizon only makes the time the audience spends with them — and that they spend with each other — all the more precious, rather than robbing it of drama and meaning. Reichardt also, wisely, keeps the focus of the movie on their friendship, and only allows the violence around them to creep into the picture when it’s unavoidable. Swathes of the movie pass in relative silence, showcasing the collection of little gestures that end up defining love better than any grand gesture can.
First Cow is now available to rent on VOD services.