Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow stars John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, and a Jersey cow listed in the credits as ‘Evie’, who has a dewy face and big soft eyes. As Reichardt has confessed: ‘She is very beautiful and was cast purely on her looks.’ Evie is, thankfully, as convincing as she is beautiful, and this is a convincing and beautiful film. It is touching, tender, original, entrancing, definitely the best cow film of the year. Plus it’s also a quietly masterful thriller where a clafoutis (blueberry) will have you on the edge of your seat.
The film is Reichardt’s eighth feature and if you’ve seen Meek’s Cutoff, a sort of western, or Wendy and Lucy, possibly the best dog film ever, you will know she is a singular filmmaker whose characters always serve as plot rather than serve the plot, which is a joy. It opens in modern-day Oregon as a dog digs up something in the woods. And I don’t need to be cagey about what the dog finds as it happens in the first few minutes. It discovers a pair of human skeletons positioned in such a way that you understand that whoever they were, they were close.
We then spool back to 1820 or thereabouts, but do not fear as this isn’t otherwise told in flashbacks. (I watched a TV show the other day that was told in so many flashbacks it might have made more sense had I watched it in reverse.) We now meet Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (Magaro) foraging for mushrooms. He is the cook for a group of mean-tempered beaver trappers, but we know, instantly, that he is good and kind when we see him gently right an upturned lizard. But there is more to the woods than mushrooms and lizards and one day Cookie encounters a Chinese man (King-Lu, played by Lee) fleeing from murderous Russians and saves him.