Berlinale 2020: Kelly Reichardt's Film 'First Cow' is the Bakers' Delight
by Alex Billington
February 23, 2020
I would really, really like an oily biscuit with honey and a touch of cinnamon after finishing this film. Please. First Cow is the latest feature made by American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (of Old Joy, Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves). After initially premiering at the Telluride & New York Film Festivals last fall, it has made an appearance at the Berlin Film Festival this year showing as a European premiere in the main competition section. Set at the beginning of the 19th century in the rural Northwest (mainly in Oregon), the film is about a friendship and successful local business started by two lonely misfits. It's not just a film about a cow, it's not just a film about friends, and it's not just a film about the Northwest frontier. It has so much depth and heart and humility, an entirely wonderful film. I think I loved it, to be fully honest, which even surprises me.
As the title indicates, Kelly Reichardt's First Cow is about the first milk cow to ever arrive in this untamed territory. It takes place during the gold rush, at a time when fur trappers and prospectors by the thousands were venturing into the wilderness in hopes of striking it rich. But few did. So they had to find other work, or establish themselves other ways. After working as a cook for a couple of mangy men, "Cookie" Figowitz, played by John Magaro, ends up back at an outpost in the region. Along the way he meets a Chinese man who calls himself King Lu, played by Orion Lee, and the two become friends as they attempt to survive and figure out how to work successfully. When they discover the cow, they start to quietly steal its milk in the middle of the night, which they use to bake into biscuits and sell them as a delicious "secret recipe" delicacy.
I'm not usually a big fan of Kelly Reichardt's films, I will admit. I often find them boring and bland, and too slow-paced for my sensibilities. But honestly, First Cow is kind of amazing?! The pacing is spot on this time - even though it runs two hours, the way the story builds and their friendship connects needs the deliberate slowness. And this measured, nuanced pacing isn't distracting or boring, because we get to watch as the two men become friends, explore their friendship, become bakers, then become local celebrities, and then get into trouble when they get "too big for your britches", so to say. As another critic stated after, the beauty is in the details. It's in the moments and all the little touches and in-between the words being spoken. That's where this film truly shines. It's all about the nuances and not necessarily what is happening in each scene.
All of this is exactly what makes me love it. It's not just a film about a cow, or about baking; it touches on friendship, and on consumerism, and on ignorance, and on capitalism, and on greed, and on ingenuity. And none of this is shown outright, it's worked into the details, worked into the script as part of the director's vision. First Cow also really turns up the heat when it becomes a film about baking delicious biscuits and how that changes everything (for the characters and for the region). This is when it went from being damn good to absolutely amazing. And it sticks the landing perfectly. Magaro and Lee are the perfect partners, and their genuine friendship is the heart of the film. It is a delight to go into a film you're not expecting to care for, and come out of it infatuated. Storytelling at its best. And a heartening experience to share with others.