“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” reads the William Blake quotation that opens Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, setting the tone for a deceptively simple tale of man’s natural home – companionship – and the ongoing struggles of commerce verses comradeship.
Reichardt’s intimate explorations of Oregon range from the modern drama Old Joy to the frontier western Meek’s Cutoff. Yet there’s still a profound element of discovery in this latest Oregon-based gem, a fable of land and freedom that serves as an up-close-and-personal portrait of friendship and a wider snapshot of America, rooted in the rich soil of the Pacific north-west.
We open in the present day, as a huge tanker floats slowly across the film’s 4×3 frame. Later, this shot will be echoed by the eerie arrival of the titular cow, the beast standing upon a barge, miles from home. In between is a period of 200 years, with Reichardt seamlessly transporting us from the present day back to the 1820s, gradually unearthing the origin of two skeletons found in the prologue. Crucially, these disparate time periods, with their connecting threads of international commerce and local interaction, seem to coexist in the same liminal space.
John Magaro is Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, who abandons his trapping party to team up with King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man whom he first encounters crouching naked in the ferns. Both men are outsiders, and together they dream of making their fortune – setting themselves up in business selling the delicious buttermilk biscuits or ‘oily cakes’ that Cookie could prepare … if only he had some milk.
Sneaking into the meadow of the top-hatted Chief Factor (Toby Jones, in magnificently pompous form), they steal a few pints from the dairy cow he has recently imported, the first of its kind in this corner of the world. Soon their tasty wares are the stuff of local legend; prices rising, demand outstripping supply. Perhaps they can make enough to set up an establishment – an affordable hotel. (What a thought!)
When the Chief Factor himself buys a cinnamon-sprinkled cake, it seems their goose may be cooked. Surely he will taste the milk and turn sour? Instead, he simply swoons like Anton Ego encountering the simple yet transcendent dish in the final act of Pixar’s Ratatouille. “I taste London in this cake,” he says with Proustian relish, “a bakery I once knew in South Kensington. Astonishing!” “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from,” observes Cookie when, rather than spying a deception, the Chief Factor enlists the pair to prepare for him a special delicacy – a clafoutis – for a handsome reward.
Freely adapted from the novel The Half-Life by Reichardt’s regular co-writer Jon Raymond, First Cow places us right in the heart of its story, thanks in no small part to the director’s collaboration with the cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. Rather than the widescreen vistas that have come to define America on screen, Reichardt and Blauvelt once again find piercing beauty in more personal framings, wherein human features are at times almost indistinguishable from the interlacing fronds of shadowy foliage – characters passing through the half-light of history.
There’s something rare and wonderful in the low-key depiction of the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, who have a fugitive touch of Butch and Sundance about them. Their kinship stands in stark contrast to the Chief Factor, a lonely fool who wants his clafoutis to “humiliate” a captain who jokes about “the savagery of life on the frontier”. The Chief Factor’s livelihood may be based upon the export of beaver pelts (an indigenous chief mocks white men for hunting the animal while failing to eat the tail), but he longs to talk of culture and fashion. Yet his worldview is as small as the fence that he constructs around his cow – a symbol of things to come, and a reminder of the boundlessness of our central couple’s dreams.