The colonisation of America is a topic that has been presented in cinema countless times, but no portrayal has shed light on these settlements quite like First Cow. The spectator is invited to experience America and its appropriation of a capital system in a pivotal period in a way that is refreshing and daunting. Kelly Reichardt returns to the silver screen with her reimagination of this era, based on Jonathon Raymond’s novel ‘The Half-Life’, who aided Reichardt by co-writing the screenplay. First Cow offers a reflection on these settlements in a way that is intimate and full of heart, and its established acclaim from critics means another win for production company A24.
With cinematography reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s filmography and Richard Ayoade’s Submarine right from the first take, the piece follows early settlements in America, Oregon County in particular, where the land was being occupied by Natives, white men, fur traders, and all sorts of travellers from across the country and Europe. An ambitious baker known as ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro) is the designated food-gatherer for a group of fur traders, who are beginning to grow tired and enraged by the lack of food Cookie is providing them with. Life for these gatherers is all about survival, and it takes very little for people to turn on their fellow man in times of desperation. This coldness is slightly disengaging, however, this contrast allows for the kindling of connections later on to strike a chord.
Cookie sets off to scavenge for his camp, and instead of finding food, he comes across a future lifeline – King-lu (Orion Lee), another hungry man on the run with whom he finds solace and builds a business relationship. Their easily-ignited friendship reflects the period they inhabit, as one of change, new beginnings, and building a foundation. There’s strength in numbers, and to survive in this landscape you have got to be able to support yourself otherwise your days will be numbered. Nearby is a small community, teeming with life through the act of local trading, hunting, gathering materials – however, people do not seem to mix groups, they merely exist in close proximity to one another. These crossroads encourage a closer look into what truly separates us, and question how much our origins affect where we are headed. In a year in which humanity has been forced to stay home and become stagnant, a visualization of this mix between groups acts as a reminder that the past is not so far behind us – we fixate on what divides us but must do more to co-exist peacefully.
There is a comfort in the simplicity of living off the land, however, references to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) suggest all is not well. Jones is unnerving and wholeheartedly embodies the upper-class London gentleman with his stern tone and demeanor. His brutality is juxtaposed with his cow’s tenderness and giving nature – her worth limitless, a prized possession blending natural resources and esteemed wealth due to her milk-giving abilities. Greed is a deadly sin, and with the cow representing a cherished capital, there is a sense looming that it is all so very fragile.
The utilisation of long takes throughout the piece act as a reminder of the simplicity of living by nature’s rules and resources, and how liberating life can be once you start living at your own pace. It isn’t a film to recommend to those looking for a complicated plot or action, although the core performances from Magaro and Lee and the tranquility achieved throughout make it a piece worthy of the top spot(s) in various critics’ lists of best films of the year. Survival is rough but it takes a lot more to show each other kindness, especially when living in a system that values productivity more than human (and animal) connection.
Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Scr: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Ewen Bremner, Toby Jones, Jared Kasowski
Prd: Eli Bush, Christopher Carroll, Neil Kopp, Louise Lovegrove, Scott Rudin, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
DoP: Christopher Blauvelt
Runtime: 122 minutes
The film is available to purchase on US VOD channels and is still awaiting UK release.