Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones
Under the thumb of lockdown for months on end, one of the pervasive trends to sweep the UK has been a renewed interest in home cooking and baking. With restaurants and bakeries shuttered for months on end, social media networks became flooded with sourdoughs, farmhouse loaves and homemade pizzas. This culinary appetite strikes a cord with the return of Kelly Reichardt and her new offering First Cow – a great ‘foodie’ film.
Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a cook travelling with Oregon fur trappers. He happens upon King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man with whom he strikes up a keen and enduring friendship. The two homestead together and talk wistfully of their dreams of becoming rich or, at least, wealthy enough to pursue their goals freely. When a wealthy landowner brings the first cow to the region, they spy a moneymaking opportunity. Sneaking onto the property at night to steal her milk, they begin making ‘oily cakes’ that prove popular with the hungry local settlers.
This is Reichardt’s first period piece since her acclaimed 2010 western Meek’s Cutoff and, like that film, she chooses to shoot in 1.37:1. Period drama suits her gentle and poetic style and editing, which favours contemplative slowness in keeping with a more steadily paced way of living. All her movies have an earthen, grassroots feel, and First Cow is no exception.
Cookie’s flavoursome cakes and sweet deep-fried delicacies aren’t the only choice foodstuffs presented here. We meet him picking wild mushrooms (weaving this film into an imagined loose trilogy with Phantom Thread and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled); squirrels make good game; he stumbles in a stream catching salmon; blueberries are discovered. And, in an ironic turn, Cookie’s cakes earn him a job catering for the prosperous landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones) whose very milk they’ve been stealing. King-Lu goes from goading Cookie into their sneaky endeavour to predicting its downfall, labeling their gambit a “dangerous game”.
But throughout there is a sense of the importance of food in these peoples’ lives. The fur trappers – portrayed as humorously cantankerous imbeciles – complain of their empty stomachs endlessly. Cookie is prideful of his skills and with reason; his cakes do so please the locals. And the having of milk is such a luxury in this story, weaving together the richness of how people eat with the depth of their pockets.
In this there’s a clear political bent to the tale, one that chimes with the economic disparity examined in Bong Joon-Ho’s mega-hit Parasite, but Reichardt’s film has other rich thematic meats to chew over, some of which dovetail back into her own exemplary filmography. In charting a friendship between two nomadic men often holed up in leafy, isolated locales, it sings as a companion piece to her sophomore film Old Joy. The simple value of brotherhood is the heart of the film (when separated, Cookie’s first question on waking is where his friend is). If Reichardt’s last – the masterpiece Certain Women – was a quietly stirring feminist piece; First Cow waxes lyrical of the bonds between men… along with their hubris. The film opens with Alia Shawkat’s dog-walker stumbling upon two skeletons at the bank of a river. This framing device casts a cloud over the story that follows, feathering a sense of inevitability that marries with King-Lu’s warnings.
First Cow also continues a conversation that Reichardt began in Meek’s Cutoff over how white pioneers interacted with the indigenous and with persons of colour. There are no tensions of race between Cookie and King-Lu – their friendship is too pure for that – but later on when we’re invited into the home of Chief Factor, we find him entertaining native guests with his wife (Lily Gladstone) acting as translator. There’s a subtle tension to these scenes, as well as those that feature Factor’s indigenous servants. Early in the film, King-Lu speaks of America as an opportunity for rebirth and to write new histories on their own terms. It’s a moment cast into shade by our extant knowledge of the county the USA has become; a land persistently steeped in racism and white privilege. The relations we see in First Cow are positioned on a knife-edge.
Whilst the arrival of a new Kelly Reichardt film is always a joy, A24’s decision to release First Cow to home streaming services comes with a great pang of disappointment, too. Not for the film; it’s as good as it’s filmmaker’s reputation. Instead for the sense of it’s distributor having blinked too soon. I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to see this film in a cinema; something that now seems incredibly unlikely outside of some future retrospective. It speaks of the long-term problems the US and UK are currently facing with COVID-19 and the collective sense of tentativeness we’re all feeling over going back to old rituals having settled into this ‘new normal’. I miss the cinema and this would’ve been lovely there.
Still, if you’re hands are floury from kneading in the kitchen and you’re looking for respite while the dough rises, there are plenty of small joys to be had with First Cow at home.