Homosocial friendships are intricate, detailed landscapes, often inflected with sexual or romantic nuances — it’s human nature to relate to a person on multiple levels without even realising. The male friendship at the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s attentive First Cow is deeply romantic. The pure bond between misfit frontiersmen Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) is forged without agenda and grounded in immediate, unconditional affection. Both are outcasts on the margins of a rapidly-expanding America, and relate to each other without a hint of tension or conflict; kindred spirits bound together in a cruel, changing world.
Reichardt is a proven yarn-spinner, having woven together disparate narratives with aplomb in Certain Women (2016), while she has also shown off her knack for precision-engineered mood control in the live-wire thriller Night Moves (2013). With First Cow, Reichardt brings these considerable talents to bear on a tale that gently re-calibrates accepted assumptions about life on the American frontier. It’s 1820, or thereabouts, and the burgeoning Oregon Territory has still yet to attain statehood as traders and travellers flock to its fertile ground and lucrative river ports. Drifter Cookie has wended his way from Maryland in the company of hunters and cowboys trekking out to seek their fortune.
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One night in the woods, Cookie encounters a naked King-Lu, who is on the run from a vengeful troop of Russian prospectors. The two click immediately. Their blossoming companionship takes centre-stage ahead of any sort of dominant plot or incident as they establish an idiosyncratic domestic bliss when they move in together at a rickety forest cabin. Essentially, First Cow reveals itself to be a hangout movie wearing a Western caper disguise, with its best scenes simply luxuriating in the easy chemistry that Magaro and Lee cultivate when they shoot the shit over whiskey and sweet treats, baked by Cookie. It’s silly, sweet and unabashedly loving.
With so much room to breathe, Reichardt is able to flex her considerable filmmaking muscles and does so without fanfare or self-satisfaction. She lets the camera indulge the lush greenery of First Cow’s setting, and gently meander around the outpost town where Cookie and King-Lu put down roots, enjoying its finer details. Reichardt marvels as much in the shimmer of a great lake as she does in the gritty, craggy faces of taciturn townsfolk (who are, in a progressive, unfussy move, far more ethnically diverse than is typical for these period pieces). This is a camera guided by its director’s immutable affection for and fascination with the world exactly as it is. It’s also deeply, if quietly, excited about the optimism and opportunism in the air at this time in American history. It’s a time of discoveries and firsts, whether it’s King-Lu being among the first Chinese men to travel so far west, or the palpable buzz when Oregon’s first-ever cow arrives in town to be hosted at the bourgeois Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) grounds on the outskirts of town.
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It’s also a time where opportunity breeds delinquency (rendered more like mischief here) as Cookie and King-Lu conspire to sneak onto Factor’s homestead at night to steal the milk of said cow to help bake Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” to sell to the townsfolk. Their dream of making their fortune and absconding to San Francisco to become hoteliers is a pure, innocent one. The tenderness with which Cookie handles the cow (herself a fabulous camera subject with her resplendent auburn coat and sparkling black eyes), gently whispering jokes as he liberates her bounty, undercuts any amorality or suspense. When Factor finally arrives onscreen manifested as a brilliantly odious snob by the ever-impeccable Jones, it’s hard to suppress a cheeky, schoolyard satisfaction as he buys a cake from Cookie and King-Lu, completely oblivious that it contains produce from his own cow.
In a way, First Cow is a male-oriented companion to Reichardt’s preceding film, the female-centric Certain Women, concerning itself wholly with the interplay of different masculine types — not under pressure, but allowed to follow their natures and intermingle as they will. Cookie is humble, childlike and kind, while King-Lu is a dreamer and a strategist (two evenly-balanced sides of a coin). Their encounters with the cultured Englishman Factor, the stoic, worldly and assured Captain (Scott Shepherd) or coarse Scot wildman enforcer Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) are playful even as personalities clash. A deadly rise in stakes in the back portion of the film hardly registers, and the keenly-observed dialogue and tomfoolery bristles with personality and subtlety. The ridiculous and the sublime meet where these men interact.
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Maintaining a steady pace throughout, First Cow carries itself with the unadorned, unassuming wisdom of its titular beast. It’s a soothing, restorative watch, with sumptuous foley work on its soundscapes and a gorgeous guitar-based score from seasoned instrumentalist William Tyler (whose albums Modern Country and Goes West long ago betrayed his ambition to compose for the screen). Reichardt’s story has the mythic quality of a fable, but refrains from moralising or casting judgement on the misdeeds and mistakes of its characters. First Cow is, ultimately, a romance, in tune with the sweeping optimism that drove American pioneers of all stripes to pastures new. Its culmination brings viewers back to Cookie and King-Lu’s authentic devotion to one another — two friends whose bond is uncowed by adversity, and echoes down the centuries to cleanse souls today.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.