First Cow review: make this heart-rending Western your first-see film

·2-min read
<p>Orion Lee and John Magaro</p> (handout)

Orion Lee and John Magaro

(handout)

US director Kelly Reichardt already has a cult following but if there’s any justice her latest offering will be a smash hit.

A Western, First Cow is sensual, bleak and meticulously authentic, reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs Miller, as well as Barry Lyndon. It also has one of the best soundtracks of the year (William Tyler’s spacey electric guitar, on An Opening will basically stroke your heart to smithereens). Thanks to Covid and the various lockdowns, cinemas are suddenly groaning with great films. But this is the one you should see first.

It’s about two losers who dare to dream big in 19th century Oregon. Cookie (John Magaro; as sweetly self-contained as indie heart-throb Paul Dano, but with a hairier, more ramshackle vibe) pliantly gathers food for hurly-burly prospectors. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is a Chinese would-be entrepreneur. Cookie and King-Lu wind up cohabiting in the forest, and a single, split-second shot suggests Cookie would like them to be more than just friends.

The pair agree that it would take a miracle or a crime to change their fortunes. Whilst waiting for that miracle they decide to make buttermilk scones with milk stolen - or should that be permanently borrowed? - from the region’s “first cow”. Said cow is as lonely as Cookie and appears to relish his soft touch. But she belongs to a local English big-wig (Toby Jones). By chance, the powerful man samples the scones and declares, with delight, that they “taste of London”. What happens next has the inexorable logical of a fairytale, though even Jones’ chilling character is three-dimensional and the way his eyeballs roll like boulders, when he’s confronted by what he views as impudence, is laugh-out-loud funny.

Ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus pops up as an addled violinist who’s as free as a bird. Reichardt loves musicians and forests (see Old Joy). If you go down to her woods today, prepare to be stunned.

Cert PG-13, 122mins. In cinemas from May 28, then exclusively on MUBI from July 9

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