Berlinale 2020 review: First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

Oregon, present day. A young woman walking her dog berates the mutt when he starts digging, only to find out that the dog has found two skeletons. A kickoff to a story and a way to give away its ending. But plot is not the most important thing, it’s the two people said skeletons belong to, in Kelly Reichardt’s sweet and evocative frontierland drama First Cow, in which she shows that the foundation America was built on is the diversity it is now fighting over two centuries later.

When we first meet Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro), this soft-spoken, gentle-natured cook is part of a group of trappers scouring the lands of Oregon in the early 19th century. As he is picking mushrooms he comes across a naked Chinese fellow, King Lu (Orion Lee). He mistakes him for a Native American, the first of many subtle references to the US’s multi-ethnic roots. The two pair up and dream of riches. Then an opportunity arrives in the next town over: a cow, the first of its kind in these regions. She belongs to the local factor, a ludicrously misplaced and arrogant Englishman, played with glee by Toby Jones. With Cookie’s qualifications as a baker, Lu points out that they could secretly milk the cow to be able to make dough and provide the town with something special: ‘oily cakes’, or scones in 21st century language. The town gobbles them up and the pair’s fortune grows as market forces click into play. The factor himself becomes impressed by the doughy treat (“I taste London in this,” he exclaims upon first try), and he hires Cookie to make a clafoutis to impress an army officer (Scott Shepherd) coming to town. As they climb in standing, it is only a matter of time before Cookie and Lu’s game is up and the source of their ‘special ingredient’ (the milk) is revealed.

Reichardt and her longtime writing partner Jonathan Raymond culled First Cow from Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, and turned it into a tale of hubris, capitalism, and greed, but also of friendship and the cornerstone of the country: its diverse origins at the outset of building a nation. Besides the ubiquitous British, we see Chinese laborers (Lu foremost), blacks, and Native Americans all mingling and toiling in this harsh land. This is the frontier from before Deadwood, when all these peoples relied upon each other simply for survival. The British form the upper class, exemplified by Jones’ character in their pompousness and false sense of superiority, something Lu happily exploits (“Some people can’t imagine themselves being stolen from,” he explains to Cookie). But all in all this is a well-functioning community, and in a time when the US is run by a president who thrives on racial division, First Cow is a good reminder that that same country came forth from the combined labour of these diverse backgrounds.

Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, another frequent Reichardt collaborator, milks all the richness the scenery of wild Oregon provides him, and William Tyler’s gentle score underpins the sweetness of the friendship between the good soul Cookie and his entrepreneurial partner Lu. They try to chase that age-old American dream, and anybody who read the first lines of this review knows how it ends. That is in part because that dream remains elusive for most little men as they are crushed under the weight of capitalism. Yet their dream lives on as much as their history does, and Reichardt illuminates that history to explain the present in First Cow without force-feeding it to the audience. The milking can be seen as a metaphor, and there is a case to be made for thematic similarities between First Cow and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, but Reichardt’s approach is less invasive and over-the-top. What they share, however, is a healthy dose of humor, and that is a surprise for Reichardt. Never has the Jewish greeting of l’chaim caused more laughter than here. With First Cow Reichardt has not only delivered perhaps her finest film, but also her funniest.

Photo copyright: Allyson Riggs/A24