Review: First Cow is a small film that feels monumental

FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt). Opens Friday (March 13). 122 minutes. See listing. Rating: NNNNN

Kelly Reichardt has never been this funny.

She’s among America’s finest filmmakers, chronicling Oregon life and labour in stark and sombre films like Wendy And Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women. Her works are typically patient, poetic and melancholic – they once inspired a New York Times writer to coin the term “cultural vegetables” because they may not be enjoyable (in the popular sense) but they’re good for you.

First Cow is all of those things. But, as a film about the Oregon area’s earliest milk supply and when North Americans first started lining up for artisanal treats, it’s also pretty hilarious. John Magaro and Orion Lee star as two men in the mid-19th century who steal milk from the region’s only cow. They use it to make a fortune selling “oily cakes” (the original donuts) to all the traders passing through the Old West.

I’d like to believe Reichardt and her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond (whose novel The Half-Life provides the source material here) hatched this entire premise just so we can see grizzly-looking, beaver-pelt-sporting men get weak in the knees like kids in line for funnel cakes. Really Reichardt and Raymond are giving us an intricate look at the foundations of American life and capitalism through the donut’s ancestor. That’s cool, too.

Magaro’s Cookie is a chef that’s passing through the Oregon area, hired to catch and prepare meals for trappers. By chance he encounters Lee’s King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant seeking the same opportunities as the European settlers that surround him. The latter is naked, hiding in the bush from Russians he had a violent encounter with. Cookie graciously lends King-Lu a helping hand, forging a friendship that soon becomes an entrepreneurial partnership of  milking someone else’s coveted cow.

“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” says King-Lu, uttering the most urgent words in a film that, like all of Reichardt’s work, is unrushed, quiet and observational. With almost every line Reichardt is attentive to who’s telling it, who is hearing it and who is being ignored by it, like the Indigenous people across the frame whose own history has been brushed aside for the settlers’ opportunities.

As with Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow is a Western that chips away at myth, and wrestles power and history away from the lone-white-cowboy archetype. In the earlier film, Reichardt re-inscribed a woman’s determination in a story that could have been told as cowboys vs. Indians. In First Cow, she sees the birth of a nation as strangers gathered around an open space, some fire and sweetened fried dough.

First Cow may seem light, as if a gust of wind can blow it away. And yet, when framed as history, its light touches feel monumental.


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