In an 1820s trading post in Oregon, “Cookie” (John Magaro) is a quiet cook for a small group of hardened fur trappers. He forages for food for tough men who would not hesitate to rob or kill him if they didn’t need him.
He happens upon King Lu (Orion Lee) hiding from Russians who want him dead. He is a Chinese man who has been in America for many years constantly seeking his next business venture.
They learn that a cow has been brought to the area by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who had planned to breed them. Seeing a way to make money they begin to steal the cow’s milk to make delicious foods to sell. They become solid friends, foraging, fishing and cooking together.
As demand for their delicious biscuits and donuts grows their operation starts to become more dangerous and the pair have to take more and more risks to keep going.
This film has a beautiful gentleness despite the harsh environment. The central characters are non-violent homemakers just seeking their fortune. Orion Lee described it as “two geeks meeting in the land of guns”.
Cookie and King Lu’s flourishing friendship is shown through simple homely chores. Taking care of something together creates a bond and establishes a space which is mutually respectful and maintained for the benefit of both.
They are quite tender and their relationship is based on a genuine connection and setting up a home. There is no romance or sexuality here. It’s a wholesome and deep friendship to which they both contribute.
At the Berlinale 2020 press conference director Kelly Reichardt explained that the film shows the American idea that anyone can take part if they just have some ingenuity.
The characters don’t all use the same currency but that doesn’t mean it’s a pre-capitalist society. The means of income are still controlled by the fort which is the only place with the ability to export and therefore the only place one can sell.
It’s a very multi-cultural place though with people from all over the world trying to make their fortune, or at least a living. The place of the native Americans here shows their ‘integration’ / abuse by the settlers.
As the Chief Factor declares with great certainty that the beaver will never be wiped out, we know what will happen to both the beaver in its natural world and the native Americans at the hands of the settlers.
The aspect ratio is an almost-square 1:66 ratio which goes against what you might expect for a film set amongst some stunning widescreen-fodder scenery. But the film is not about a grand scale landscapes, it’s about intimate human relationships so a closer feel is absolutely appropriate.
There is a lot of careful framing throughout the film. Windows, trees and doors are all portals for wonderful tableaus (there are some nice examples in the trailer below). One memorable shot has a haggard old man standing perfectly framed in his doorway with a large black raven perched on his shoulder looking like something out of a gothic novel.
The protagonists’ respect for animals and nature is a big part of what makes this a great film.
While the rise of the settlers brings destruction to the natural world (and the native people), Cookie and King Lu treat nature with a lot more care. Cookie speaks so gently to the cow as he milks her that the audience can't help but audibly sigh.
The sound is also quite exquisite and helps us to feel a deep respect and love of nature. Hear the low pop as mushrooms are individually picked, or the luscious foliage rustling as people forage or hide in its cover.
The sound makes their relationship to food a lot more tangible too. The specific snap and crunch of a biscuit tells us how dry and hard it is and we can compare that against the gentle bubbling oil as soft donuts are being fried.
“First Cow” is thoughtfully crafted and beautifully shot. It’s exciting and dramatic yet tender and considers the non-violent men building friendships in a harsh environment. I really hope that a lot of people get the chance to see this film because it’s a wonderful ode to nature and male friendship.
Hi, I'm Caz. I live in Edinburgh and I watch a lot of films. My reviews focus mainly on women in film - female directors or how women are represented on screen.