First Cow (2019)

A mesmerizing understated gem of a story that gradually unfolds to reveal a heartwarming tale of friendship, empathy and aspirations

2/10/20246 min read

John Magaro and Orion Lee in 'First Cow'
John Magaro and Orion Lee in 'First Cow'

English, 121 minutes, 2019

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Alia Shawkat

Awards: Nomination, Golden Bear, Berlin International Film Festival, 2020; Winner, Best Film, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, 2020; Runner-up, Best Film and Best Director, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, 2020; Winner, Best Film and Runner-up, Best Director & Best Actor (Magaro), Florida Film Critics Circle Awards, 2020; Nomination, Best Foreign Film, Cesar Awards, 2022; Nomination, Best International Independent Film, British Independent Film Awards, 2021

The film is based on a 2004 novel, ‘The Half Life’, written by Jonathan Raymonds. The screenplay was jointly developed by Jonathan Raymonds and Kelly Reichardt. In the beginning itself we two buried skeletons, discovered by a small girl (Alia Shawkat) near a river bank. The two skeletons are buried side by side signifying joint burial. Next, the film cuts to early nineteenth century, the era or trappers and frontiersmen in America.

A group of frontiersmen are travelling accompanied by their cook, Otis Figowitz (John Magaro). The crew calls him cookie. He seems a simple, shy and quiet man not meant for hard and ruthless life of fur trappers. As he is collecting mushrooms and other edible herbs from the jungle, he encounters a nude man who speaks impeccable English. He reveals he is being chased by a Russian group as he might have killed one of their men. Cookie gives him clothes, something to eat and place to sleep at night in his tent. His name is King Lu (Orion Lee). Soon we see him hiding in luggage carried by trappers’ group.

After few days, as trappers depart we spot Cookie in a bar. On a trivial matter bar-brawl breaks out and King Lu appears there out of nowhere. He invites Cookie to his hut when he learns that other fur trappers haven’t taken him with them. They share a drink and Cookie start setting house clean. King Lu is smart and ambitious. He dreams of starting a farm whereas Cookie wants to start a bakery.

One day they see a cow being brought to the area. It belongs to the Chief factor, a rich trader in that locality. The cow is tied outside and is largely unattended. Cookie, a talented cook, gets tempted to use milk and bake biscuits. The duo steals milk from Chief Factor’s cow with Cookie milking the cow and King Lu keeping a watch from atop a tree. The milk is fetched, the cakes are made and eaten. Though Cookie is not satisfied and requires honey to make it sweeter, King Lu smells business opportunity. He says he has seen “..fortunes made on much lesser”. So the duo goes to market to test the waters and lo and behold, locals lap it up. Soon, there is a queue for the freshly made cakes. Thus the daily grind begins of stealing cow’s milk at night, making batter at home and frying cakes on site in the market. As the money pours in, two partners decide to store money on a tree rather than keeping it at home. Soon the news of delicious cakes reaches the chief Factor (Toby Jones) and he comes one day for tasting. He is thrilled and asks whether Cookie can make Clafoutis (a French dish served as a side dish during breakfast or with cream as dessert) as the chief Factor is going to have a distinguished guest.

The distinguished guest is a captain (Scott Shepherd) and on the appointed day, Clafoutis is made and delivered by Cookie and King Lu themselves to the chief Factor’s house. They inevitably discuss about cow and chief factor takes captain and others to show off his cow but wonders why is she giving less milk despite being from good lineage. The cow recognizes Cookie and nuzzles up to him. The captain notices this. Back at home Cookie says to King Lu meekly that they should stop for a while as he thinks captain is getting suspicious but King Lu wouldn’t listen. He is of the opinion that they should keep the momentum as people have warmed up to their creation.

That night is shown in great detail and we pre-empt that something wrong is going to happen. Sure enough, the branch on which King Lu perches himself for keeping watch, breaks and he falls on ground while Cookie is milking the cow. The noise creates commotion and the chief factor and captain arrive at the scene and soon captain realizes after seeing the stool and pale that someone is stealing milk. Immediately, the chief factor guesses that “Cookie and Chinaman” are behind the theft. That begins a hunt and duo flees the village. King Lu jumps into a river but Cookie lacks the courage and is left behind. He runs in opposite direction but falls off an edge and becomes unconscious.

After few days, Cookie wakes up to realize that he is being looked after by an old couple. When he gains strength, he leaves to find his friend. Meanwhile, King Lu too returns to their old hut which is now ransacked by Chief factors’ men. Cookie too returns to their hut and both meet. King Lu tells Cookie that it is not safe for them to stay there and hence they must leave. Both leave on foot. After sometime, they find a place to rest as Cookie is recovering and mighty tired. Cookie rests and King Lu assures him that they will be safe and he too lies down by his side. The film ends with this visual of the two friends resting side by side.

Did they make it big or did they die their together, for we had seen two skeletons side by side in the beginning. Well, Kelly Reichardt leaves it to the viewer’s imagination though the conclusion seems obvious.

Reichardt's direction is masterful in its restraint, allowing the story to unfold at its own pace while immersing viewers in the rugged beauty of the Pacific Northwest landscape. The film's muted color palette and naturalistic cinematography evoke a sense of authenticity, transporting audiences back to the bygone era. A large share of that credit also goes to costumes and production design which excelled at creating early nineteenth century American landscape replete with forests, Indians, costumes worn by common folk and their huts or houses.

Magaro and Lee deliver standout performances, imbuing their characters with depth and nuance. Their chemistry is palpable, infusing their scenes together with warmth and humanity. The supporting cast, including Toby Jones and Scott Shepherd, further enriches the film with their nuanced portrayals of frontier life.

About the director,Kelly Reichardt

Born in March, 1964 in Miami, Florida Kelly was born in the family of law enforcement officers. She got attracted towards film quite early on and developed keen interest in photography. She completed her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She worked in the Art department on Todd Haynes’s film ‘Poison’ in 1991 where the two became best friends.

Her debut feature, ‘River of Grass’ came in 1991 which was about a local couple who want to run away from the state of Florida as they get involved in a shooting incident but lack of funds prevents them for doing so. It was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film festival and nominated for three awards at Independent Spirit Awards in 1995. After her stellar debut the funding for her second feature should have been cake walk. But she has said in many interviews that, “… for 10 years I could not get movie made and …. being a woman was a roadblock in raising money…” So she started making short films instead.

Her first short after 1994 was in 1999 titled, ‘Ode’ based on Herman Raucher’s novel, ‘Ode to Billy Joe’. Then she made, ‘Then a Year’ in 2001 and ‘Travis’ in 2004. After these three shorts she made her second feature film, ‘Old Joy’ in 2006. The film was a road movie based on a short story in the collection of short stories, ‘Livability’ by writer Jon Raymond. Kelly wrote the screenplay and edited the film along with the direction. The film was released in Sundance Film festival, 2006. The film was feted at a number of film festivals; the notable among them was Rotterdam International Film festival, where it became the first American film to win the top prize, ‘Tiger Award’ in 2006.

After 2006 though she continued to make feature films frequently and the present film is her seventh feature film. ‘First Cow’ is based on a 2004 novel, ‘The Half-Life’ written by Jon Raymond whose works Kelly has adapted for screen many times. The screenplay is written by both Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt. The film was unveiled at Telluride Film festival on 30th August, 2019.

After she completed ‘Old Joy’ Kelly was invited to teach at Bard College, New York state. She is the Artist- in- Residence in the ‘Film and Electronic Arts Program’ at Bard College. She has received John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 2009 and United States Artists fellowship in 2011.