First Cow review: A superlative period drama
Magaro and Lee9
Friendship and tenderness9
Matthew Turner | On 09, Jul 2021
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat
Where to watch First Cow online in the UK: MUBI UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) /
Acclaimed director Kelly Reichardt returns to the fertile territory of the Pacific Northwest for her latest film, loosely adapted from a novel by her co-writer and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond. Set in early 19th-century Oregon, it’s a compelling period drama about male friendship that also has something interesting to say about capitalism and creativity.
The film opens with a short modern day prologue (a nod to a larger narrative strand in the novel), in which a young woman (Alia Shawkat, on screen for just one scene) and her dog discover some human bones while out for a walk in the woods. The story then flashes back to Oregon, sometime around 1820, where loner and trained cook Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) strikes up a friendship with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), after saving his life.
Some time later, Cookie and King-Lu are reunited at a trading post, ruled over by an English landowner known by his title of Chief Factor (Toby Jones). When the settlement’s first cow arrives at the outpost by boat, the two men come up with a business idea: Cookie will make delicious tasting “oily cakes” and King-Lu will sell them to the local traders, starved of a taste of home. However, their business requires the men to illegally obtain milk from Chief Factor’s cow, which Cookie does under cover of darkness every night, with King-Lu keeping watch.
The touching and beautifully observed friendship between Cookie and King-Lu forms the beating heart of First Cow, as the two men forge a tender, human connection in the lonely, sometimes hostile wilderness (they first meet when Cookie hides a naked King-Lu from a group of men trying to kill him). Their immediately successful business venture seems to offer hope and a bright future, but there’s a constant sense of suspense, because the illegality at the foundation of their business means they could be ruined – or worse – at a moment’s notice.
As with her previous period film, Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt conjures an utterly convincing evocation of time and place, aided by striking cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt, an atmospheric score from William Tyler and some note-perfect production design work that’s packed with tiny details. Similarly, Reichardt puts her colourful supporting cast – including Ewan Bremner and Rene Auberjonois as fellow settlers and Lily Gladstone as Factor’s Native American wife – to brilliant use, giving a real feel for the hustle and bustle of the settlement.
Reichardt’s pacing is masterful. It’s not an action-packed film, by any means, but every little moment is incredibly compelling, as the story moves inexorably to the conclusion we’re already dreading from the film’s prologue. Along the way, there are a number of delightful moments, from Jones’ Factor biting into an oily cake and wistfully exclaiming “I taste London” to a lovely shot of the cakes themselves sizzling in a frying pan as the customers begin to gather.
First Cow is one of Reichardt’s best films to date, a quietly devastating period drama, layered with melancholy and anchored by an almost agonisingly tender central friendship. A film to savour, like a delicious oily cake.
First Cow is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I buy or rent First Cow online in the UK?
This review was originally published during the 2021 Borderlines Film Festival