This film was previously reviewed in February 2020 as part of our Berlinale coverage.

Some films need no special tricks or thrills to captivate, and Kelly Reichardt’s latest is a near faultless example. Following a loner cook and a Chinese immigrant who form a loving alliance in their travels through Oregon’s gold rush and dream of building a comfortable life together – a life funded by delicious ‘oily cakes’ they make with milk stolen from the region’s first and only cow. But from the opening William Blake quote and flashback from the twenty-first to the nineteenth centuries, First Cow is more focused on little moments of life and friendship than it is on the destination; its gentleness is extraordinary.

The film’s storytelling structure is exemplary, luxuriating in every moment without feeling stagnant, each shot used to build Cookie’s (John Magaro), King-Lu’s (Orion Lee) and the audience’s sense of wonder in this world. The camera celebrates the northwest’s stunning scenery and an ambling, tranquil score underscores the quiet wonder of forging a new life. Even when the pair’s illicit scheme raises the tension, the warmth never disappears.

Reichardt’s excellent cast supply heart in spades. Even Evie, playing the titular cow, is a warm and engaging screen presence. Some characters, such as Toby Jones’ superbly pompous Chief Factor, are loving caricatures, but Magaro and Lee carry the film with their characters’ genuine fondness for each other. Any conflict is external as their bond is never in doubt, which allows viewers to simply enjoy the company. This commitment to the humane leads to a bittersweet and overwhelmingly kind ending that transcends these modest frontier lives.

The unshowy humanity of First Cow feels unsuited to superlatives, but the film’s flawless execution makes it one to treasure. Every element comes together to create an extraordinary study of an extraordinary friendship, and fried pastries have never looked so nourishing.



CAST: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones

DIRECTOR: Kelly Reichardt

WRITERS: Kelly Reichardt (screenplay), Jonathan Raymond (screenplay and novel)

SYNOPSIS: In gold rush Oregon, a loner cook and a Chinese immigrant fund a fresh start with cakes made from stolen milk.