23-02-2020

FNE at Berlinale 2020: Review: First Cow

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First Cow by Kelly Reichardt First Cow by Kelly Reichardt

BERLIN: American director Kelly Reichardt arrives in the main competition with First Cow an adaptation of Jon Raymond’s novel The Half Life sent in the Oregon wilderness during the early days of the American pioneers.  The pioneers in the Pacific Northwest is familiar territory for Reichardt as her highly regarded film Meek’s Cutoff about the fate of pioneers who died as they made their way west along the Oregon Trail was also set in this period.

The setting for First Cow is a remote trading post in the Oregon Territory around 1820. The story revolves around two men at the trading post who become friends. Cookie played by John Magaro cooks meals for the trading post’s fur trappers.  He is soft spoken and much less aggressive than the traders he works for. He meets by chance a Chinese sailor on the run named King-Lu played by Orion Lee. Rather than turn King-Lu in Cookie decides to take him in and feed the very hungry King-Lu and helps him get away.

But the two men are destined to meet again and later when Cookie encounters King-Lu who as by now set himself up in a cozy shack and before long the two men set up a home there together. The tender friendship between the two men as they live in harmony with the animals and the wilderness despite the rough traders around them is touching.

Before long the two men are involved in good old American entrepreneurship starting up an small trade in making “oily cakes” a food that reminds the traders and settlers of home.  The most important ingredient is milk and this they obtain by stealing it from the settlement’s only cow.  The cow is owned by the English chief of the post played by Toby Jones and his wife a native played by Lily Gladstone.  They live in a real house and having the only cow is a mark of civilisation in this small community. 

Like all Reichardt’s films the story is simply but compelling and revolves around the relationship and friendship of the two men. This is a kind of profound intimacy between two men in the days before Facebook cheapened the meaning of friendship and closeness grew up as people lived their lives side by side and helped each other.

The film opens with a scene set in 1980s Oregon as a young girl played by Alia Shawkat walking her dog in the woods suddenly discovers two men lying buried in the earth lying side by side. We don’t see her again but the episode sets up the subtle questions that run through the film about what we have lost in human values and human relationships in the 200 years since the two men lived and died side by side so long ago.

The beauties of the Pacific Northwest are captured with simple but stunning effect by Reichardt’s cameraman Christopher Blauvelt who also worked with her on Meek’s Cutoff.  We see the beauty of the two men’s relationship against the beauty of the wild and panoramic Oregon countryside. While some might have gone for more action or played it for more laughs the simple quality of Reichardt’s storytelling turns this into a fable for our times and a meditation on the nature of pre-Facebook friendship.

First Cow (USA)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer