Set in the 1820s, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a tender film about friendship wrapped up in stunning cinematography and superb writing. It avoids the characteristics of a classic western, giving us a soft and personal story instead. The film opens on a river as a large barge passes by. There are little clues given to establish the present-day like the clothes a female jogger is wearing and the sound of a nearby road. Then the woman digs up a pair of skeletons, linking the scene to the past.
We first meet Cookie (Joe Magaro) as he travels with a group of fur-trappers though Oregon Territory. His quiet nature stands out amongst his aggressive and rowdy companions. One night while hunting for food, he stumbles across a naked and hungry King Lu (Orion Lee). The connection between the two men is instant, and it grows into something beautiful as the film progresses. Instead of hyper-masculine, gun-slinging cowboys typical of the genre, Cookie and King Lu are gentle and content. They journey through life at the bottom of the pile, doing what they can to get by.
At the 30 minute mark, it arrives. The first cow. It drifts onto the screen on a little boat, it’s importance and beauty radiate off it. It’s arrival sparks an idea that, like every good idea, starts with a crime. If they steal the milk from the cow, Cookie can make cakes for them to sell. Although what they’re doing is wrong, it is executed with kindness. Cookie quietly chats to the cow while he milks it, forming a sweet bond with the creature. Their crime isn’t performed with malice, it is done to survive.
First Cow is a masterclass in the art of subtlety and trusting your audience. Reichardt gives us the pieces of the story, allowing us to figure it out and immersing us in the narrative. On the surface, we are shown this blossoming friendship between the two main characters but there are other underlying themes of colonialism and capitalism. One of the ways the film explores this is through the side characters. When other filmmakers might cutaway, Reichardt lingers, suggesting the presence of other narratives running parallel to the one we are watching. Whether it’s the baby left in a bar, or the young soldier missing out on some oily cakes, these moments with the surrounding characters creates a far richer story. It helps us imagine how this world existed before this film, and how it will exist after.
The gentle, plucky music combined with beautifully shot scenes and warm tones makes for something spectacular. Every detail has been meticulously thought out and serves a greater purpose than it may initially seem. Even the editing has been done with so much care and talent. Despite the slow pace, the film is endlessly captivating and suspenseful.
There is no doubt that First Cow is one of the most breathtaking films in recent years. It is entirely unique in its approach to storytelling and to not watch it would be a mistake.
Featured image credit: A24 Films.