Movie review: First Cow

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

It’s a cold, cruel world out there, where friendship and companionship can be the difference between making it and losing everything all alone.

That was a true back on the American frontier in the eighteenth century as it is now, something that First Cow, the latest film by writer and director Kelly Reichardt – she co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond upon whose book, The Half Life, the film is based; they previously collaborated on 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff – conveys with moving poignancy as two quite different men find commonality in the most unexpected of places and ways.

It is the friendship of Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) which forms the quietly but powerfully affecting heart of a film which is content to let its small, impactful story run its course in the unhurried fashion which seems to be the hallmark of Reichardt’s films.

Commencing in a mysteriously quirky fashion which presages the end of the film, First Cow is set against the ceaseless push into the vast American wilderness by settlers in 1820 Oregon, all of them eager to get their slice of the nascent American Dream, a concept that was in its infancy in the opening decades of the 19th century and which was predicated on the idea that America offered everyone the chance to make their lives more prosperous and successful.

This wasn’t wholly true then just as it isn’t wholly true now, not simply because its realisation rested on the dispossession of the First Nations people from their historical lands, but because the very capitalism which fuelled this heady push from “sea to shining sea” all but required that a hierarchy of people formed its living heart and would all benefit to different degrees.

Still, in the optimistic world of First Cow, there remains this idea, however tenuous that you can make something of yourself, which accounts for why so many men in particular are living in ramshackle cabins and ratty tents in frontier towns in the Umpqua River region of Oregon that are more like muddy fields with habitation that anything else.

(image via YouTube (c) A24 Films)

It is, for all its promise, a hard, bleak existence whose lack of present favour for the most part propels this intoxicating idea that the promised bounty of the future lies tantalisingly close.

What is fascinating about the friendship between King-Lu and Cookie – the letter rescues the former from a dire situation for which no amount of American Dreaming will be enough – is how differently the two men approach their secured of this hoped-for bounty.

King-Lu is quick to go in hard and quick, to take risks, grab what he can and get back out again while Cookie, who has been on the move from the east coast since he was a boy, his home lost to the early death in quick succession of both parents, is far more circumspect, patient and risk-averse.

What they do have in common however is a need for connection and meaning and purpose, all of which they find in a friendship which not sustains them emotionally but which gives rise to an ingenious plan to make a great deal of money quickly off the back of clueless rich local landowner, Chief Factor (Toby Jones) whose importation of the first cow in the territory offers a unique opportunity to strike while the cooking iron is hot.

Like anything predicated on sleight of hand and thievery, the risks are great and while the rewards soon prove to be substantial, there’s always this sense that their opportunistic house of cow-made cards could tumble and fall at any time.

Cookie, a sweet, thoughtful man who takes pleasure in his cooking and his quiet observations of the world around him, and who is the work horse and engine of the partnership begins to think they should get out while the going is good but King-Lu, who has clearly suffered greatly since fleeing China and wants to dream big and risk big to make up for it counsels his friend that they stay, make as much as they possibly can and then head to san Francisco to open a hotel and bakery.

It’s a seductive idea, one that promises both men the kind of settled life that has eluded them until now, and so they stay the course until, of course, fate intervenes and their fragile hold on the American Dream begin to slide ever so slowly and then with violent intent out of their hands.

(image via YouTube (c) A24 Films)

First Cow, for all its cautionary musing on the American Dream and its recognition that the inequalities that now bedevil the country were all present quite early on, has at its heart the life-sustaining joy of the friendship between King-Lu and Cookie.

Accompanied by a musical score, courtesy of William Tyler, that is all bucolic quietness and meandering thoughtfulness, the film spends a great deal of its slowly unspooling 121-minute run, depicting the coming together of the two men and the friendship they forge out of emotional need and financial necessity.

In a slight narrative than never really ventures further than it has to, and honestly given First Cow‘s focus is on friendship, connection and the simmering origins of the American Dream, it is fine just as it is, what really grabs your heart is the fiercely quiet bond that binds these two quiet different men.

Reichardt takes her time letting their tale be told, allowing all the natural rhythms of human life on the frontier to have their space to breathe, allowing audience to subsume themselves in a world which, even then, talks big but delivers little and whose day-to-day hardships and banality grant some grounded humanity to the glowing mystique that still accompanies talk of frontier life.

As much heartfelt love letter to the power of human connectivity as it is a meditation on what drives King-Lu and Cookie to do what they do, First Cow is a gentle slice of beautifully-wrought drama that uses landscape, music, slow arcs and an unhurried storytelling style to remind that big and momentous things such as a life-changing friendship often take place in the unassumingly banal of circumstances.

It is a gorgeously-realised look at the beginning of the American Dream, a wholly unique idea that rests on a need as old as humanity itself – to be known and understood, cared for and sustained and to have someone else have your back no matter what, all ideas that sit at the very heart of First Cow, a film that for all its understatedness has a great and mighty tale to tell, one whose truths resonant down through to the present day where the need to be connected to others remains as necessary and parlous as it ever was.

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