Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow stars John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, and a Jersey cow listed in the credits as ‘Evie’, who has a dewy face and big soft eyes. As Reichardt has confessed: ‘She is very beautiful and was cast purely on her looks.’ Evie is, thankfully, as convincing as she is beautiful, and this is a convincing and beautiful film. It is touching, tender, original, entrancing, definitely the best cow film of the year. Plus it’s also a quietly masterful thriller where a clafoutis (blueberry) will have you on the edge of your seat.
The film is Reichardt’s eighth feature and if you’ve seen Meek’s Cutoff, a sort of western, or Wendy and Lucy, possibly the best dog film ever, you will know she is a singular filmmaker whose characters always serve as plot rather than serve the plot, which is a joy. It opens in modern-day Oregon as a dog digs up something in the woods. And I don’t need to be cagey about what the dog finds as it happens in the first few minutes. It discovers a pair of human skeletons positioned in such a way that you understand that whoever they were, they were close.
We then spool back to 1820 or thereabouts, but do not fear as this isn’t otherwise told in flashbacks. (I watched a TV show the other day that was told in so many flashbacks it might have made more sense had I watched it in reverse.) We now meet Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (Magaro) foraging for mushrooms. He is the cook for a group of mean-tempered beaver trappers, but we know, instantly, that he is good and kind when we see him gently right an upturned lizard. But there is more to the woods than mushrooms and lizards and one day Cookie encounters a Chinese man (King-Lu, played by Lee) fleeing from murderous Russians and saves him.
The bond of friendship is immediate and when they later re-meet they set up house together. More accurately, they set up hut together. There is nothing homoerotic going on here, Brokeback Mountain-style. They just get on, and have each other’s backs. One chops woods while the other sweeps — it’s so affecting, somehow.
They are poor, like most, but dream of a different life. King-Lu would like to own a walnut farm. Cookie would like to open a bakery selling goods that aren’t just ‘flour and water’, which is all that’s available here. The titular cow (Evie) is the first to have been brought to the territory, and belongs to the wealthy Chief Factor (Jones), who lives opulently, and craves milk for his tea. King-Lu looks at Cookie and looks at the cow and: kerching! They’ll steal the milk and Cookie will make ‘oily cakes’ to sell at market. They put this plan into action, milking by night, and the hot cakes sell like, well, hot cakes. Even the Chief Factor gobbles them up greedily, exclaiming: ‘They taste of…London.’ Might the pair make a clafoutis (blueberry) for a special tea he is hosting?
This, in its quiet way, is fraught with danger. Will the Chief Factor, who bemoans his cow’s poor milk yield, join the dots? Truly, the clafoutis (blueberry) scene will have you on the edge of your seat. So there’s the tense, thriller aspect but also this is about the harshness of frontier life, a nation not yet formed, an emerging class system and capitalist economy — Evie is literally a cash cow — yet none of this is declarative.
The film has sumptuous cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt and an evocatively melancholic score by William Tyler but what is most compelling are the two exquisitely drawn main characters so exquisitely played. And the cow. Looks can only take you so far, but Evie has it, I think.