First Cow: Trapped by the bonds of history

Review: Fine ensemble gives added weight to story of American frontier

Orion Lee (left) as King-Lu and John Magaro (right) as ‘Cookie in director Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, released by A24 Films. Photograph: Allyson Riggs

Film Title: First Cow

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, René Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Smith, Stephen Malkmus

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 121 min

Fri, Jul 9, 2021, 05:00


The fifth of Kelly Reichardt’s films set in America’s Pacific Northwest mines and marries many of the US auteur’s preoccupations. Working with co-writer Jon Raymond to adapt his own novel The Half-Life, Reichardt revisits the social inequality of Wendy and Lucy, the cruel history of Meek’s Cutoff, and the sensitive male friendship at the heart of Old Joy. On the Oregon frontier of the early 19th century, the tender-hearted Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is working for unpleasant beaver trappers, when he comes to the assistance of King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from Russian hunters.

King-Lu and Cookie hide out at the former’s shack and bond over a scheme concerning the Chief Factor, a British landowner (Toby Jones), and the region’s first cow. Every night, Cookie and King-Lu secretly milk the cow and bake biscuits with their dairy haul. Cookie, who was formerly indentured to a baker in Boston, dreams of opening a bakery in San Francisco; King-Lu, meanwhile, would settle for a farm.

For a time, the popularity of Cookie’s recipe suggests that they are edging towards their goals. But as the Chief Factor’s chilling calculations regarding flogging, the work lost through injuries sustained, and the labour gained from motivated witnesses, this land of opportunity is not a land of equal opportunities. The Chief, accordingly, frets about fashions in faraway Paris while his native staff work and protect the land.

As ever, Reichardt works in delicate movements as a storyteller. Magaro and Lee’s wonderful chemistry keeps perfectly in step with the filmmaker.

From the opening sequence, in which a contemporary mushroom forager (played by Alia Shawkat) discovers human bones, First Cow is a tactile experience in which footfall on the forest floor and dirt take centre stage. Regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, working in muted, earthy colours, and a crunching sound design add to the sensorial experience.

A fine ensemble includes Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and, in one of his final roles, the great René Auberjonois. The minimal narrative leaves room for weighty conceits: “History isn’t here yet,” reasons King-Lu. “It’s coming, but maybe this time we can get ahead of it. Maybe we can meet it on our own terms”.

It’s a race, as the prologue makes clear, that they can never win.