‘First Cow’ review: humour, friendship and bovine burglary on the wild frontier

Indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's latest effort is her finest yet

Kelly Reichardt has built a fine reputation as one of American independent cinema’s greatest contemporary filmmakers and with the stunning First Cow she’s made the best of her seven features to date.

After a brief, mysterious modern-day prologue in which a woman walking her dog near a river makes a startling skeletal discovery, the action switches to the wild plains of Oregon in the 1820s. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro, Carol, Orange is the New Black) is a young, timid cook travelling with a bunch of rambunctious fur trappers who comes across a naked Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee, Stars Wars: The Last Jedi, Skyfall), hiding in the wilderness.

Lu is on the run from a Russian gang after he killed one of their number in revenge for the death of one of his friends. The kind Cookie gives Lu shelter for the night. When they later meet by chance when Cookie’s stint with the trappers is over, Lu invites Cookie to stay with him and they concoct a scheme to steal milk from the local big-wig’s cow, the very first one in the territory.

With the pilfered milk Cookie makes delicious cakes that the pair sell to the keen locals, including Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – the cow’s stern owner and boss trader in the area. Cookie dreams of running a hotel in San Francisco and they aim to sell enough cakes to achieve that goal and get out of Oregon before the Factor catches on.

As well as directing and editing, Reichardt adapted the screenplay with regular writing Jonathan Raymond, who wrote The Half Life, the novel the film is based on. With careful pacing and immaculately mounted scenes full of earthy period detail, the warm tone of First Cow shines through as Lu and Cookie’s friendship blossoms while swindling the Factor with their nocturnal bovine burglary. It’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. Scenes where the duo con the locals into believing their goods are made with a secret Chinese ingredient give the harsh frontier era some much-needed levity, while Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner is a small delight as one of the Factor’s henchmen. Jones is typically brilliant as the greedy and malicious the Factor.

But the real core of the film is Lu and Cookie’s relationship. Magaro and Lee are excellent as the criminal pals who share a yearning for a better life and we desperately want them to succeed. It’s fun seeing them live together as a surrogate married couple. Funny, compelling and truly (sorry) moo-ving.

Details

  • Director: Kelly Reichardt
  • Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois
  • Release date: TBC
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