Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Ewen Bremner, Alia Shawcat
American writer-director Reichardt’s loose adaptation of Jon Raymond’s ‘The Half-Life’, (Raymond co-wrote the screenplay) may be her finest film to date. It certainly feels like the richest refinement of her minimalist fable-like but thematically rich storytelling style.
In a brief present-day prologue, a young woman (Shawcat) and her dog discover a human cranium in the dirt. When the dog scrabbles all the dirt away two skeletons holding hands are revealed.
Flashback to 1820 where we meet ‘Cookie’ Figowitz’ a meek and soft-spoken cook to a boorish band of fur trappers who deride him for the amount of food he is able to provide. During one expedition, Cookie discovers a naked Chinese man King-Lu (Lee) hiding in a bush. Initially assuming that the Chinaman is a Native American, Cookie lets King-Lu, who is on the run, hide in his shack.
Running into each other later in Oregon at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post they go to King-Lu’s hideout in the woods, where, over whisky, they talk about their respective aspirations. Cookie, who apprenticed as a baker in Boston, wants to open a bakery in San Francisco, while King-Lu dreams of being a farmer. When they discover that local wealthy English landowner, the Chief Factor (Jones) has acquired the titular bovine, they sneak into his pasture and begin stealing milk, using it to make ‘oily cakes’. The cakes are a huge hit and they begin stealing more milk to save up money to fund their own business. Then Cookie is commissioned by the unknowing Englishman to make a clafoutis (a cherry dessert) for an upcoming important meeting. He accepts, but as the prized cow begins to produce less milk for its owners, suspicions are raised.
While Reichardt’s storytelling is typically low-key, the tale works a subtle but biting critique of American capitalism, as well as very affecting depiction of male companionship. The very stately pacing in the opening act may present a challenge to some viewers, but works to acclimatise the viewer to the period setting, and the third act is surprisingly tense. There are even moments of comedy, such as the sequence when the cow recognizes Cookie at an inopportune moment.
The boxed in academy ratio framing evokes the old timey feel while emphasising the duo’s cosy intimacy, and the leads are excellent, with Magaro as Cookie particularly impressive, the character’s troubled past is outlined in the script, but his facial expressions and downtrodden demeanour are just as eloquent.
First Cow is released on 28th May
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