American director Kelly Reichardt is an independent filmmaker and teller of small stories that dignify characters who society routinely overlooks or marginalises. In one of the strands of Certain Women (streaming on Amazon Prime), the mute adoration of a young ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) for her law studies teacher (Kristen Stewart) is deeply affecting and almost tragic in its grandeur. First Cow is a minor masterpiece along the same lines, on one level a simple western about two unlikely companions thrown together on the 19th-century American frontier, on another a poetic reminder of the transcendent power of friendship.
The central figure, Cookie (the delightful John Magaro), is a cook and forager preparing meals for a grim bunch of trappers. Out picking mushrooms one day he discovers and shelters a naked Chinese man, King Lu (Orion Lee), who is on the run from his Russian captors.
They set up house in Lu’s old cabin, where one of Cookie’s first gestures is to pick wildflowers to put inside. Together they eke out a living until the entrepreneurial Lu has the idea of stealing milk from the settlement’s first dairy cow, owned by a ruthless, rich trader. The plan works and the settlement falls in love with Cookie’s simple damper cakes which are transformed by the secret addition of milk and sweetened with wild honey.
For a while, it feels too good to be true as the men’s joyful domesticity inside their carefully swept hovel gently acknowledges the human drive to set up a home. They begin even to prosper in this precarious environment where brutality, racism and exploitation are a constant threat. Together they start planning a future in San Francisco where they can live as free men and open a small shop or café.
The ending is foretold, in a sequence at the very start set in contemporary America when we see a woman (Alia Shawkat) on a walk with her dog uncover a shallow grave and find a pair of skeletons huddled together for protection or warmth. The wonder of this touching and tender film was never about what happens in the end but in the gentle elevation of home and friendship to the front of frontier life.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.