FIRST COW: A Full-Fat Dairy Drama

With a forthcoming UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, Maxwell Tait looks at FIRST COW, Kelly Reichardt's spellbinding tale of two cheeky entrepreneurs in 19th century Oregon, and the cow that has no choice but to keep them all together.

Photo by Allyson Riggs | Courtesy of A24

“I guess cows aren’t really built for swimming?”

“No, it didn’t drown - it got struck by lightning”.

As this odd exchange from her debut feature River of Grass proves, Kelly Reichardt has been ruminating on bovine fate since 1994. Her latest film, First Cow, has been in the wings for a while now, one of many to have fallen foul of the great COVID calendar reshuffle. The prolonged wait for a UK release has a lot in common with the delivery of the eponymous cow, leisurely gliding downriver on a raft, all the pace of the popemobile on the campaign trail. Like when you clock a mate you’re meeting far too early down the street, First Cow has been on the horizon for an almost awkwardly long time now, slowly arriving. And, like said pre-pint mate, these last few months have been an agonising wait for a thing of such fine quality.

Let it be known First Cow does not disappoint on its title. Unlike the cane from Citizen Kane, this is very much the story of the first cow in a swelling, 1820’s Oregon. We accompany Cookie (John Magaro), a gentle, honest drifter that we first find righting an upturned lizard, helplessly stuck on its back. Good, he isn’t a replicant. Picture an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie bangs his head and dreams of a simple life in 19th century America and, in the nicest way possible, you’re halfway to Cookie — just much more chilled out.

Cookie wanders, forages, and, well, cooks. He runs into King Lu (Orion Lee) in the local tavern, a business-minded, amiable Chinese immigrant that Cookie previously helped hide from a group of bloodthirsty Russian trappers. King Lu invites him back to his little wooden shack for afters. Over whisky, they talk about King Lu’s dreams of a farm, and reminisce about Cookie’s work in a Boston bakery. Pretty soon Cookie has moved in. They live a quaint, domestic life, but they’re tired of bread made with flour and water. Everything would be drastically improved if they just had a bit of milk: buttermilk biscuits, pancakes, unimaginable baked riches. And Cookie and King Lu happen to know where the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) keeps his newly-arrived prized dairy cow.

The thick plot gloops at such a satisfying, tectonic pace, and with all the accompanying weight to show for it. Of course they sneak in and milk the cow in the dead of night. Cookie leaves a freshly-baked biscuit on the windowsill for King Lu. It’s Vito and the Johnny Cakes all over. A bite, his eyes light up — his Ratatouille moment, surely? No: “How much do you think someone would pay for a biscuit like that?” And First Cow reveals itself as true heir to The Apprentice, as the pair attempt to tap into the burgeoning street-food craze of the 1800’s with their ‘oily cakes’. They always need just one more bucket of milk.

Photo by Allyson Riggs | Courtesy of A24

Films often boast of foregrounding nature, but rarely has one felt so earthy and organic. Thanks to the foliage-dense setting and an utterly celestial film grain, First Cow is probably the best looking thing you will watch this year, like a texturally layered oil painting. Crickets chirp, the wind whistles, water laps; you could reach out and feel the udders and moss, so tactile is the filmmaking. I’ll need it confirmed to me, but until then I'll continue to presume ASMR is someone whispering sweet nothings to a cow being milked under cover of darkness.

Such immersion is ideal for a film so enamoured with food and drink. Milk, chanterelles, biscuits, Chinese tea, blueberries, mussels, clams, and even a clafoutis — you will be asking yourself why these boys are eating better than you are, some two hundred years ago (stealing from the rich helps).

Speaking of boys, Reichardt has made a film that really is just boys. It’s telling that that should be the case, considering the prologue even suggests that the film is all the imagined history of a woman walking her dog in the present day (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development’s Maeybe Fünke), a nice nod to Reichardt’s previous film Wendy and Lucy. The only other moment permitted to women in the entire film is during a tea party. When the men leave the room, the two wives join each other on the sofa, laughing and complimenting their jewellery — in such a male dominated film, this single moment of women connecting is the ultimate Bechdel Test gag, made even funnier knowing Reichardt had that in mind when she wrote it.

Photo by Allyson Riggs | Courtesy of A24

As always, Reichardt addresses the timeless spectre of racial intolerance with a deft hand. King Lu’s attempt to converse with the Chief Factor and his fancy guest are met with a pause and movement of eyes that says more than words — just Toby Jones once again reaffirming his position at the top of the acting pile. Far from suggesting films that confront prejudice head on are anything but important, it is increasingly vital in our bigoted world that micro-aggressions are also accurately accounted for on screen.

So, it’s one of the best recent food movies, and, with Cookie and King-Lu’s truly heartwarming companionship, one of the best recent buddy movies. It’s definitely a companionship as opposed to a friendship — there may be more to their relationship, but someone more perceptive will have to unpick that for you. Reichardt has been making excellent films for a long time now, but it feels like with First Cow she has absolutely nailed it. It’s that moment where everything aligns, and an already great artist manages to distill their very essence into something that is perfectly rounded — Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Zama, or 12 Years a Slave. Maybe that’s just a naive way of saying that First Cow will appeal to a wider audience than her previous films, but it doesn’t really matter when it’s this good.

A handful of extra tickets have been released for First Cow's UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival this evening and it is currently scheduled for a UK cinematic release on the 28th May 2021.

@mwntait / @living__image