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First Cow

Director – Kelly Reichardt – 2019 – US – Cert. N/C 15+ – 122m

***1/2

Western (set in Oregon!) in which a drifter and an immigrant join forces to surreptitiously milk a rich man’s first cow and better their lot – plays Glasgow Film Festival Friday, March 5th to Monday March 8th

A woman with a dog (Alia Shawcat) discovers two human corpses in the present day Oregon woods. Flashback to the nineteenth century. Cookie (John Magaro), a drifter, is the cook attached to a party of trappers travelling through the woodlands. He’s a poor scavenger for food and as a result, they are starving – with much acrimony directed towards him. As soon as they find a small settlement, he departs company and lets the trappers go on their way without him. He watches a rich local take delivery of his first cow with plans for buying a mate and breeding a herd later on.

Cookie falls in with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) who has a hut nearby. They bond over a bottle of wine at King-Lu’s shack in the woods and become friends. Finding the cow wandering near their dwelling, they hatch a plan to milk it secretly at night (cookie milks while King-Lu keeps watch from a nearby tree) and use the milk as an ingredient in oily cakes, which they start selling at the settlement and which become a huge success overnight. The local Chief Factor (Toby Jones), having heard of this, comes to try the cakes for himself. He is impressed and asks them to bake him a cake to impress the Captain (Scott Shepherd), a visiting guest he “wants to humiliate”.

One night, however, one of the Chief Factor’s servants goes outside the house and hears the Chinaman fall out of the tree. The ensuing search reveals a milking stool and the game is up. Now Cookie and King-Lu have to get away before the Chief Factor’s men catch them.

Director Reichardt who co-wrote the script with the author of the source novel The Half-Life, Jon Raymond, constructs her narrative with a painstakingly slow pace that conveys something of a rootless, nineteenth century rural existence concentrating on small, tactile details – cooking implements, sourcing ingredients for cooking and so on. When you see the places in which people are living, they have a real quality to them that immediately makes you wonder how they were built, presumably by the people now living in them. Such painstaking attention to detail in set decoration is rare, and it pays dividends.

The protagonists are mostly men and her interest lies in their ingenuity and attempts at survival. Cookie has been trained as a baker in Boston and is clearly very skilled, but until he meets King-Lu he lacks either the venue or the wherewithal to practice his craft. Together, they become a skilled team – a fixer and a creative. But ordinary people like them lack capital: when the cow turns up, they have access to, in classic Marxist terms, the means of production. It being a cow, they literally milk it for all that it is worth. It’s not their cow, however, and as King-Lu observes to his friend, they are playing an extremely dangerous game which can’t go on indefinitely. And as the present day opening hints, it’s not going to end well.

First Cow plays Glasgow Film Festival Friday, March 5th to Monday, March 8th.

Trailer:

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