Kelly Reichardt’s film is an intimate portrait of friendship and a provoking portrayal of life on the American frontier
In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, two outsiders meet in a forest in 19th century Oregon. Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro), is a miserable employed cook who spends his days feeding a gang of fur-trapper roughnecks. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is a Chinese man fleeing murderous Russians he has wronged. An unlikely friendship is forged when the pair hatch a plan to steal milk from the county’s sole dairy cow to bake and sell delicious ‘oily cakes’ at the local market. It’s an instant success, drawing lines of eager customers willing to spend their hard-earned cash on deep-fried dough. As their friendship grows, so does their business and the milk theft stakes.
Set against the proto-capitalist backdrop of the 1820s fur trade boom and amid the gold rush, First Cow is both an intimate portrait of friendship and a provoking portrayal of life on the frontier. Cookie is an orphaned drifter from Maryland, whose sensitive disposition feels at odds with his ruthless surroundings. King-Lu, on the other hand, is sharp-witted and worldly. He sees America as a land of riches, ripe for the picking. Both men are outcasts, and together they dream of making their fortune.
“There’s a commonality in that they're both outsiders in this harsh world. And then if you want to get esoteric about it, they’re soulmates in a way,” says Magaro, who’s previously starred in The Big Short and Orange is the New Black. “I don’t think they realise that obviously, they don’t understand that. But there is a deep connection between them, and that obviously develops throughout the story.”
Reichardt wrote the script with regular collaborator Jon Raymond, whose novel The Half-Life serves as the source material. The film opens with a quote from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. Indeed, there’s something distinctly endearing about the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu. Their camaraderie – which draws comparisons to another western, 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – stems from a common cause: loneliness. But it’s not long until the pair start confiding in each other with their hopes and dreams.
“I think we were initially driven by a need, I think King Lu is a very astute judge of character, and so he sees somebody that he thinks he can trust,” Lee says. “But at the same time, he needs to trust in somebody at that point in time as well.”
He pauses. “But then again, friendships, relationships, they all grow out of whatever in the beginning. You just need the two people to meet and then, as time goes by, it develops.”
Then there’s the film’s leading lady, the titular character listed in the credits simply as ‘Evie’. The brown, wet-eyed cow’s entry into the film – gliding along the Columbia River on a barge in the dappled afternoon sun – is glorious. “She was really sweet,” says Magaro. “The humans were the ones who would fuck things up. The cow was great.”
Some of the film’s most heartwarming and intimate moments take place during the covert nighttime milking scenes. Cookie sneaks into her field while King-Lu keeps watch in the nearby tree. It’s here that Cookie spends tender moments with the cow, consoling her on the death of her family, and reassuring her of her good luck (“you’ve got a good place here,” he tells her).
“Friendships, relationships, they all grow out of whatever in the beginning. You just need the two people to meet and then, as time goes by, it develops” – Orion Lee
“We formed a pretty good bond,” says Magaro. “I really loved the scenes where we were sitting talking to her in the night. I would bribe her with treats. Those were some of my favourite moments.”
“I never met her, because I was up in a tree,” Lee interjects. “I never saw the scenes and I – or King Lu – was so jealous when I saw it in the cinema. I – Orion – was like, ‘damn it John, you’re so good at that’. And the other part as King-Lu was like, ‘You had this kind of relationship with the cow? How come you didn’t talk to me like that?’” he waves his arms around. “Angry wife,” Magaro quips, and they both laugh.
On a closer reading, First Cow could be ingested as a critique of the formative failures of capitalism. Cookie and King-Lu must steal from the rich in order to make their riches, while the ruling class – the cow’s owner is the Chief Factor (played by a perfectly pompous Toby Jones) – profit off immigrant labour and the native Americans, with little regard for the land they’ve pillaged. Magaro disagrees: “I didn’t think of this as a capitalist story, because approaching it from Cookie’s perspective, he’s part of it. He's perfectly willing to be a capitalist and certainly King Lu is.”
“I definitely think it’s about capitalism, but not in the sense of this is a story about capitalism, it’s just because I look at it through the lens of King Lu,” interjects Lee. “And King Lu is an entrepreneur, so he’s always looking for business and money, and where it is and how it can be made.”
First Cow is a story of danger and hubris, and the necessity of both in securing any great fortune. Upon this, Reichardt uses the harsh climate of rural America to set the stage for a compassionate story of friendship, interrogating the very foundations on which the country and society has been built.
First Cow is out now