Review: First Cow

Kelly Reichardt returns with a strong contender for her masterpiece.

Returning to the Oregon settler milieu of Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt once again slows things down, gently nudges aside the more obvious choices of protagonist, and finds quiet sublimity in the hopes, dreams and struggles of those quiet figures on the fringes.

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First Cow is ostensibly a slight tale of two lumpenproletatiat figures scamming their way to a successful cake stand at the local market by purloining milk from the first dairy cow in the region. But what at first seems like a gentle bromance and low-stakes no-victims crime caper is in fact a deeply astute dissection of capitalism and the way it holds the poor in place. As the saying goes, you need money to make money – just as you need milk to make cakes.

This theme is explored with Recihardt’s customary deft touch and gorgeous compositions, as honeyed as the cakes themselves, but don’t relax. As charming as the tale may seem, over everything hangs the image of the opening scene, in which skeletons are uncovered in the wilderness. Whether our heroes succeed in their culinary endeavours, or whether the local captaincy succeeds in putting a stop to their dairy hijacking, our thoughts turn to the epigraph from Barry Lyndon: they are all equal now.

Standout scene: the men depart to look at the cow, and we are left with the Chief Factor’s wife, Lily Gladstone (Certain Women), quietly chuckling with her maid. Men!

In summary: this is top-three Reichardt – right up there with Certain Women and Wendy and Lucy. A beautiful warning to us all.

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First Cow is currently available in virtual cinemas in the US, and will be coming soon to the UK.

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