In the early 19th-century wilds of Oregon, taciturn cook Cookie (John Magaro) befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run. Their unlikely friendship ultimately leads them to start a small trade in “oily cakes”, which turn out to be a hit, with many a prospector paying handsome sums for their culinary efforts. The only catch is that the raw material they use for their delicious treats is acquired illegally, stolen from the region’s only cow, which belongs to a pompous landowner (Toby Jones).
Director Kelly Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond (the author of the novel upon which the film is based), creates a unique, neorealist Western that celebrates characters on the margins of society. Except instead of six-shooters, it’s buttermilk biscuits and cinnamon for arguably the gentlest heist movie imaginable. Her previous films have delved into the nature of friendship; in First Cow, she beautifully explores the gentler facets of masculinity and male friendship (the *cough* milk of human kindness, if you will) and subverts the way the frontier is portrayed on screen: it’s as much about the American dream and supply-and-demand economics as it is about a place where paths cross. Much like the Blake line that opens the film – “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship” – she builds a precisely paced and intimate examination of a partnership of convenience turned caring friendship, leading towards the realisation that through crossing paths, connections to others redefines one’s concept of ‘home’.
The end result is a delicately transportive and above all big-hearted story of brotherhood and tasty grifting, one that was the clear head of the herd in the 2020 Berlinale Competition and hands down one of the best films you’ll see all year.
First Cow / Directed by Kelly Reichardt (US, 2020), with John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones. Starts July 9 on MUBI.