“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”: A famous proverb from the pen of Romanticist poet William Blake. His philosophical implication here, broadly speaking, is that friendship is as vital to man as basic shelter is to beasts and bugs. Houses may be formed of bricks and mortar, and shelter of sticks and silk; but ‘home’ is a uniquely human principle, denoted by brotherhood and mutual love. The quote constitutes the opening ident for First Cow — a fitting first note for Kelly Reichardt’s highly engrossing, if slightly maundering, study of male friendship on the American Frontier.
The rivers of Oregon flow peacefully, reflecting a faint shimmer of moonlight. Leaves crackle under distant paws. It’s the early 19th Century. We can practically hear the birthing cries of the American West. A small group of hungry trappers, each decorated with warming pelts and deerskins, camp in wistful isolation. Their hunger and fatigue breed discontent–of which Cookie (John Magaro), the camp’s timid cook, takes the brunt. Deep into nightfall, Cookie forages the wilderness for mushrooms–what he doesn’t expect to fall upon is an unassumingly naked man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), whose own mushroom is fortunately concealed.
Into First Cow weave geo-cultural tensions: King-Lu, from China, is on the run from a group of Russians, one of whom he murdered in self-defense. Cookie is altogether bewildered by this hodge-podge of nationalities in the otherwise devoid Oregon frontier. Reichardt’s vision of a rapidly expanding border is one of eclectic identities–she’s keen to acknowledge America’s history as a melting pot, even if only as window dressing to the film’s central thesis on friendship. That is the one which burgeons between Cookie and King-Lu: A symbiosis of King-Lu’s ingenuity and Cookie’s talent, which the men–with all the aspirations bred by this early, untapped vision of the American dream–rapidly commodify.
This comes via ‘oily cakes’–a delicious baked good, quickly sold out each morning at the frontier camp in which Cookie and King-Lu stay. The latter claims that the recipe is based on a secret oriental recipe, adding to the altogether mystique–in reality, they rely upon milk stolen from the udder of the sole (and first!) cow in the region, which lives upon the estate of Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Factor is the epitome of British imperialism: The singular reason he owns a cow is to provide cream for his own tea. The man is so consumed with ego that he recognises not why his cow produces so little milk; as King-Lu reflects, these people simply cannot believe that they would be stolen from. This would be to accept vulnerability–that the permanence of ownership is not guaranteed. Reichardt relishes in stillness. Her debut feature, River of Grass, was a dueling study of paralysis and escape, themes which have bled out into her wider work. First Cow, in this sense, feels to be the natural progression of these ideas–it simultaneously celebrates the speedy inventiveness of the American West and formally basks in meditative stasis. In this sense, the film’s measured pace makes sense, and feels to be the clear route to take. Unfortunately, said stillness too often becomes laggard: Not enough to sully enjoyment, but it does encourage an impatient glimpse at a watch or a phone. This is not helped by another of Reichardt’s admirable aesthetic choices, which also falls short–the film’s many night-time scenes are desaturated and genuinely dark, making it difficult to follow what is otherwise an entirely engrossing tale.
What Reichardt is able to create, in spite of these issues, is a wonderfully nuanced imagining of the birth of a nation–one which relishes in simplicity and the tactile warmth of human connections. First Cow, right up to its elliptical ending, is engrossed by the strength of friendship–perhaps if the necessary vocabulary had existed at the dawn of the American West, King-Lu and Cookie would be better defined as lovers. We open on two skeletons, laid together in a bed of mud: Melancholic echoes of the relationships which constitute the concrete joints of human history. The stories untold resonate the loudest.
This review is from the Berlin International Film Festival. A24 will release First Cow stateside in select theaters on March 6.
Jack is British film journalist, exhibitor and screenwriter. He currently resides in South East London but spends at least an hour per day wishing he was in the Italian Riviera – and no, not just because he watched Call Me By Your Name twenty-six times, thank you very much. He has attended all of the major festivals other than Venice but he’s hoping to knock that off later this year. He sees himself much like his film taste: unashamedly queer and far tackier than he’d like to admit. When not writing the next great indie flick, or sat in a barely-lit art house auditorium, he can typically be found in a gay bar ranting about Ronald Reagan. You can find Jack on Twitter at @_Jarking