First Cow (4 stars)

First Cow

GFF 2021: Kelly Reichardt's western follows a pair of friends as they dare to dream

This touching take on friendship illustrates how integral it is to human happiness and perhaps even survival. Setting her film in the emerging civilisation of the Pacific Northwest during the early nineteenth century, the great American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women) delivers her second western, following Meek's Cutoff, exposing the grim reality behind her country's myths but finding the beauty, too, in living lives more intertwined with nature.

After an ominous, modern-day prologue featuring Alia Shawkat, First Cow steps back in time to introduce us to John Magaro's rather adorable loner Cookie (so named because of his culinary skills), who is working with a group of unfriendly fur trappers in Oregon Territory. Cookie is tasked with foraging and hunting for their food, though shows little aptitude for the latter. This quiet man quickly reveals his kind heart when he helps Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), who he finds cowering naked in a bush after falling foul of some volatile Russians.

Later the pair shack up together in the tiniest and most rickety of huts and collaborate on a cooking venture, which involves selling hot cakes to cold, famished and grizzled men who, it transpires, can't get enough of them. But in order to make the batter, the pair have to partake in night-time missions to secretly milk the only cow in the territory, a cow owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a dangerous man to displease.

With the friends' fate apparently signposted at the outset, First Cow is a tense and poignant tale, based on the novel The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who collaborates with Reichardt on the screenplay. Together they offer their own twist on the story of America, observing the fusion of cultures, routine hardship, and the impossibility of fashioning something out of nothing in this supposed 'land of opportunity' (something Minari, unfolding in the 1980s, also plays on), or at least doing so honestly. Although focusing on men this time, Reichardt's film is much less macho and overtly patriotic than westerns of old.

Enhanced by its gentle rhythms, the film foregrounds the soothing effect of companionship, as Reichardt has before, a particular pleasure after Cookie's mistreatment at the hands of the brutish trappers and King-Lu's own trials.

Filmed in a reduced, 4:3 ratio, which gives emphasis to the human angle and lends the woodland environs an almost cosy feel, it's shot by regular Reichardt collaborator Christopher Blauvelt and is rich with autumnal colour, while the unobtrusive, lingering, often static camerawork allows us to really be in each moment.

First Cow might be set two centuries ago but there's something highly recognisable in a pair of friends daring to dream and planning for the future, and the film is buoyed by their hope, however futile we know it may be.

Screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021. Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 28 May and on MUBI from Fri 9 Jul.

First Cow

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 2h 1min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
  • Written by: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
  • Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone
  • UK release: 28 May 2021

A skilled cook, Cookie (Alia Shawkat), travels west to find fortune and success. After making his way to Oregon, he finds his only kindred spirit is King-Lu (Orion Lee) and the two start a successful business together.