Berlinale 2020 – Review of “First Cow”: A world that lost its delicacy

26 February, 2020

In First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt (In competition at Berlinale 2020, a neo-pantheistic-western) – an ordinary cow is sent on a float in 19th century Oregon: the ludicrous of this image is sustained by the slow pace of the raft arriving at the shore, where Americans are waiting in awe – it’s the first time they see such an animal – it’s unsure if they see it as exhibit or an alien of some sort). Being the first cow in those territories, it belonges to the bountiful: Chief Factor takes it home with him, where he keeps the cow as a trophy showed to his earnest guests. For those richer than him, the Chief Factor is a daisy, but for those poorer – he’s a king. These hierarchies are important because in Reichardt’s movie they lose their dimension once an amateur chef and a fugitive Chinese become the masters of commerce, having nothing but a bright mind. 

 Evie the cow in First Cow
Evie the cow in First Cow


“Cookie” Figowitz (played by John Magaro) is a bon homme, with a character similar to Lazzaro from Lazzaro Felice (by Alice Rohrwacher, 2018): a friend in need for all the animals and plants, gentle and meek, and a distant observer of the world. When he’s laid-off by a group of bandits – for whom he used to cook mushrooms, being incapable of catching fish or wild animals, Cookie finds himself with no other aim or direction. As Reichardt shows us, this is a world where not acting like a conventional colourless “man” – meaning not fighting, hunting or being determined, will bring you only thrusts and no second chances.  Covered by dirty rags and with a straw hat on his head, not even his appearance helps him. However, when he meets the outsider King Lu (Orion Lee) – a Chinese who murdered one of his friends and is now on the run from some Russians, Cookie finds his partner. To honor his friend for taking him in his small lodge, Cookie sweeps his cottage and picks some nice flowers for the table. This need of leaving decency, even in a place like Lu’s shack, is a counterpart of another film by Kelly Reichardt – Wendy and Lucy, in which Wendy meticulously arranges her place to sleep: a piece of carton before putting her pillow on it, ready to sleep in the woods, under the blue sky. The bustle of the two westerner partners is charming yet mournful: laying down in their lodge, they dream of big businesses, like two kids, and when the dream is over, they go back to their usual activities: cooking mushrooms and chopping timber. 


On one of his night walks, Cookie finds the legendary cow unguarded on a plain next to the Chief Factor’s house, and relates the fact to his Chinese friend, who immediately foresees a successful business: they could illegally milk the cow after midnight and cook doughnuts which they could sell in the nearby village. The chain of comical events that follow is juicy and flawlessly scripted – even the Chief Factor enjoys the doughnuts without ever thinking the milk used to cook them could be from his cow, and so the art of the trade is born, which reminds me of Bong Jong-Hoo’s film – Parasite.

Orion Lee (left) as “King-Lu” and John Magaro (right) as “Cookie” in director Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW, released by A24 Films. Credit : Allyson Riggs / A24 Film

Even though the film is categorized as a western, Kelly Reichardt’s film is a neo-neo-humanistic western: its protagonists are two unremarked and oh-so-delicate human beings, that could never act as main characters in a classical western. In this sense, probably the most representative scene is the one with Cookie trying to utter some baby-words to an infant, left alone in a wooden craddle, while his dad is caught up in a fight in the rear background, outside the bar. Moreover, the way the protagonist interacts with animals and plants, seems to be the director’s main focus, while the action itself falls on the second place. The balance between the comical-farcical elements of the film (the characters’ inadaptability, the contrast between their delicate beings and the huge amount of mud on the grounds) and the emotional ones (their unusual bond) show the true nature of the film, which is both a crowd pleaser and a wonderful auteur piece; a film that depicts a world who’s lost its delicacy, or has never even found it. 

Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.


Director/ Screenwriter