There have been many genteel scenes in westerns in the past but none so winningly genteel as the whole of First Cow. Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s screenplay is based on Raymond’s novel The Half-Life. It has the flavour of a much-embellished yarn, yet is told so gently and seemingly simply that you take it in like a deep breath on a summer’s night in the woods. We’re in the 1820s (except for a brief present-day prologue), in Reichardt’s beloved Oregon – the locale of her Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is collecting yellow mushrooms to feed the irascible fur trappers whose ‘cookie’ he is, when he comes across the naked figure of King Lu (Orion Lee), an ethnically Chinese man, hiding in the bushes. King Lu explains he’s on the run from some Russians who mean to kill him. Cookie hides him until he makes his own escape.
They meet again in the environs of a trading-post settlement after Cookie has been paid off, and King Lu invites him to his shack in the woods for a drink. In the most touching of many touching scenes, while King Lu goes to chop wood for the fire, Cookie sweeps out the hut and gathers a simple bunch of flowers and puts them in a jug. For this is a film about two great themes of the old west: homesteading and rustling.
What gets rustled here, however, is not cattle – the first cow ever to reach Oregon has only just made its way to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – but the cow’s milk. This is our odd couple’s great scheme: Cookie is an expert baker and yearns to make some cakes with real milk, so, with King Lu’s encouragement, he secretly milks the Chief Factor’s cow at night, while King Lu keeps watch. Soon Cookie’s delicious cakes, made with a honey drizzle, are making them a fortune. So, obviously, trouble is brewing on the horizon, of a kind you can easily imagine.
Shot to be projected in academy ratio, First Cow has the down-at-heel period authenticity of, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller married to the poignancy of Sam Peckinpah’s westerns, and it’s couched in an always playful anti-macho mood of laconic going-with-the-flow while subverting the cliches of westerns. Its use of detail – the paraphernalia of pioneer existence – is exquisite. Its visual approach emphasises warm colours amidst organic mulch. It knows how to amuse with empathy, even throwing in a couple of really dumb children’s jokes of a kind I’m fond of, but which I won’t spoil by telling here. Nothing is made too great a fuss of except by belligerent and vengeful souls in a place where the law is really the Chief Factor, the Factor’s men and the odd military officer.
What’s really impressive is its use of a prelapsarian mood to portray an America built on racial and social diversity. Cookie and King Lu live together but the film and we never care to know on what basis; the English Factor seems to be married to a Native American, and when they’re visited by a military man, they want to impress him with their sophistication. That melting-pot idea of the States is presented as everyday reality and the dialogue is riddled with language in-jokes. These are particularly relished by Toby Jones as the Chief Factor, but the cast as a whole are at ease in having fun with a world rich in now-disused expressions and a huge variety of accents. John Magaro does quietly cute and dreamy like he was born to it; Orion Lee, playing someone who’s had to grow up too fast to be wise, gives the right note of mystery to his ethereal thinker. In a much smaller role, Ewan Bremner’s cocky highlander is a treat, but everyone in this film comes across like they always belonged there.
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Originally published: 24 February 2020