Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 2 minutes, Director – Kelly Reichardt
When a lone cow is introduced to early 19th Century Oregon the newly formed friendship of chef Cookie (John Magaro) and immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) benefits as they begin to make and sell treats with the help of its milk.
For those unaware of the phenomenon that is ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) it’s often described as a tingling feeling down your spine or across your body, sometimes in response to certain gentle visual, verbal and audible triggers that have a generally relaxing nature. Over the past couple of years it’s gained a large following on YouTube, and has even begun to be incorporated into films – a haircut scene in 2017’s Battle Of The Sexes took direct inspiration from ASMR videos. Now, whether intentional or not, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow finally makes it to the UK, after being released in the US early last year, and provides such comforting feelings. There’s a genuinely relaxing feeling that lies throughout the film with it’s naturally gentle treatment of the friendship at the heart of it.
The friendship at hand is between chef Cookie (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). The two meet in the wilderness of early 19th Century Oregon, while Cookie is working for as the mistreated chef for a group of fur-trappers and King-Lu is on the run from a group of Russians. It’s established that, while in two very different ways, the two are outsiders in their differing situations. This chance encounter is the beginning of what feels like a genuine friendship. A number of years later the two find themselves sharing a cabin, wondering how they can get by with Cookie’s skills. Things eventually turn around, in terms of time in the world of the film and its run-time, when a lone cow is brought into the area by an Englishman known as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). The milk the cow provides opens up plenty of new opportunities for the pair in terms of recipes. Taking some milk for themselves in the dead of night they begin to expand operations, making what they refer to as ‘oily cakes’ which they sell with great success and acclaim at the nearby market.
A slight smile of hope and joy gradually forms on Magaro’s face as his character sees the titular cow for the first time. It’s a sign that he believes his fortunes are finally turning around and that this change could vastly improve his life. While he might be stealing the milk of an animal which belongs to someone else this doesn’t really enter your mind, instead you simply feel happy for him and King-Lu, wanting to see them succeed. The film is led by two highly understated central performances that get across the small impacts of the various gestures, conversations and kindnesses that make up Reichardt’s latest feature (co-written with Jon Raymond, the writer of the novel on which the film is based on, The Half-Life). With everything that happens over the two hour course of the film it forms something the complete opposite of The Revenant.
When more serious dramatic elements are introduced in the final 20-25 minutes of the piece you’re almost unprepared for them. Because of how quiet and calm the film has been in the build-up to this point you almost don’t feel ready for the slight shift. You’re still engaged with the characters and there’s certainly still an effect, but perhaps not as much as there could be, especially when it comes to some of the potential emotional impact that the film appears to be aiming for. However, this does show the strength of the 90 minutes beforehand, particularly when the film finally gets around to the more business related venture that the central pair set out on. Magaro and Lee both give strong performances that feel genuine and believable. Very subtle and never forcing anything onto the viewer, as is the case with Reichardt’s film as a whole, simply following the developing respectful friendship over the course of 122 minutes. It’s finely done and truly leaves a comforting mark on the viewer, and forms a personal cinematic experience unlike any other. All through calmly viewing the quietly genuine – to use an overused, yet sincere, pun – milk of human kindness.
First Cow may very well be the definition of an actual comfort film. You might not quite be ready for the dramatic rise in the final stages but Magaro and Lee remain strong leads with subtle, understated performances, pushing the genuine friendship at the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s calming film.