All actors are cattle, Hitchcock once said. In response, Carole Lombard arranged in 1940 for three heifers labelled with cast members’ names to be waiting for him on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith.
He would have got on famously with Evie, who plays the title role in First Cow, and makes her entrance gliding along the Columbia River on a barge in the afternoon sun. Of the film itself, he might have been less enamoured. Though it begins with the discovery of two skeletons, this is no murder mystery. The plot features a string of nocturnal thefts, but it’s hardly To Catch a Thief. The location is a trading post in the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century, populated by immigrants of different nationalities, but it isn’t a Western either. Discount those options and what’s left is a pleasing oddity: a bromance set against a backdrop of baking.
The bros in question are King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese entrepreneur, and Cookie (John Magaro), a furry-faced Maryland native, so-named because he works as a cook for trappers hunting beaver pelts. He agrees to a drink at King-Lu’s shack, where they drift naturally into playing house together. Their accord is expressed most poetically in a shot of King-Lu seen through the shack’s square window as he chops wood outside. The swing of the axe coincides briefly with the thomp of Cookie beating a dusty rug in the doorway. Without a word being spoken, the domestic duet shows how closely in concert they are.
King-Lu gets to wondering how they might make something of themselves; he harbours a half-baked ambition to export the oil from beaver glands. Chancing upon a cow in a meadow one afternoon, Cookie has a better idea.
The animal has been imported by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wistful but iron-fisted Englishman, expressly so that he can enjoy milk in his tea. He purchased a pair, Cookie learns, but the male died en route. Stealing into the meadow at night, Cookie brings with him a milking stool, a bucket and a benign bedside manner. “Sorry about your husband. I heard he didn’t make it.” Squirt, squirt. “But you’ve got a nice place here.” Squirt, squirt. The cow looks unimpressed (don’t they always?) then returns to its thoughts.
The doughnut-like treats that Cookie bakes with the stolen milk (“oily cakes”) are a hit at market. Everyone wants to know the magic ingredient. “Ancient Chinese secret,” King-Lu says. A scuffle breaks out for the last of the batch, which is sold to the highest bidder. You don’t see that at Greggs.
They keep coming back with more. Then the Chief Factor himself tries one. “I taste London in this,” he says in amazement. Would Cookie be willing to rustle up dessert, he asks, for a forthcoming social engagement? The baker reluctantly agrees, knowing that he could be signing his own death warrant in the form of a clafoutis.
Kelly Reichardt’s perfectly distilled film, which she adapted with her regular co-writer Jon Raymond from his 2004 novel The Half-Life, thrives on the tension between apparently insignificant details and their dramatic ramifications. On one level, it revolves around several buckets of purloined milk. But it is also the story of capitalism emerging from a lawless environment of mud, moss and mist, where life is cheaper than oily cakes, and power rests with those who own the means of production. It’s a face-off disguised as a bake-off.
King-Lu laments the obstacles faced by the impecunious but the film takes the view that it is those without friends who are truly impoverished. (Its epigram comes from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”) The Chief Factor hopes to use the clafoutis to impress an esteemed colleague, although that isn’t the word he uses: he says “humiliate”. The Englishman may possess wealth, a wife, a grand residence and that handsome cow. Compared to what Cookie and King-Lu have between them, though, he is on his uppers.
Watching their friendship crackle into life is one of the film’s deepest pleasures. Conversation flows so casually that it feels more sighed than spoken. The lilt and bounce of Lee’s line readings, and the sincere glow of Magaro’s enchantment with the world, are reflected in the naive joys of William Tyler’s score. Chiming circular motifs picked out on dulcimer, harp and ukulele suggest the lullabies of a mobile dangling over a baby’s crib.
There are kinks of perspective, too, such as when Reichardt cuts from a close-up of Cookie in the undergrowth to a wide shot of the forest which seems to be taken from his point of view – until his head pops up from among the fronds to give you a jolt. As her six previous films (including Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women) have shown, she is a miniaturist who draws profundity from the quotidian. “For me, the cinema is not a slice of life,” Hitchcock said, “but a slice of cake.” First Cow, however, is both.
“First Cow” is in cinemas from 28 May and on Mubi from 9 July
First Cow (12A)
dir: Kelly Reichardt
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy