FIRST COW – Review
Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW offers a tale of friendship and American dreams, set in a hardscrabble frontier outpost in early 19th century Oregon territory, place that is less a community than a microcosm of the flaws of capitalism carved out of a green, lush wilderness. Two friends, a quiet, gentle baker known as Cookie (John Magaro) and a talkative, ambitious Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) hatch a scheme to sell baked goods made with milk pilfered from the area’s first and only cow, the property of the wealthy local bigwig, known as Chief Factor (an excellent Toby Jones), who rules the outpost like the British lord he fancies himself.
There is, of course, a cow, a beautiful brown pedigreed milk cow, the first cow in the territory reportedly but certainly the first at the outpost. Chief Factor intended to bring the cow, a bull and a calf from San Francisco but only the cow survived the trip. Reichardt shows the arrival of the cow in glowing light, as if it is a magical creature.
FIRST COW is a most engaging film, one that often feels like a fairy tale as it unfolds it’s simple tale but a film that deepens as it unfolds, thanks in large part to the wonderful performances by John Magaro and Orion Lee as the two friends at the center of the tale. The drama was set to debut in theaters in March, and had opened in some already, just as the coronavirus pandemic shut theaters down. Still, the film was already garnering awards buzz, and it is now getting a release on video-on-demand starting July 10.
Reichardt’s languid, contemplative, unconventional Western opens with a quote from William Blake, “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” and explores the bonds of friendship, the power of dreams and ambitions, and the flaws in the foundational American myths of capitalism. The film weaves its simple but irresistible tale around dual themes: male friendship and economics, creating an unforgettable tapestry .
Reichardt makes her points about economics subtly and indirectly, presenting the situation and leaving us to draw our own conclusions. She is more direct in painting the portrait of friendship, male bonding in particular, leaving the two leads to create a human warmth between these two appealing characters.
Kelly Reichardt is a master of indie film-making, but this is perhaps her most accessible and story-driven film. There are a number of parallels to her other films here, including an intimate focus, the Oregon setting, and a languid pace. Reichardt co-wrote the script with Jon Raymond, adapted from his novel “Half-Life.” The William Blake quote (which also opens the novel) brings to mind another quirky indie Western, Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN (and in fact Gary Farmer has a small role in this film) but mostly there are numerous overlaps with Reichardt’s other films, such as CERTAIN WOMEN, WENDY AND LUCY, and the Western MEEKS CUTOFF.
The tale of friendship and life struggle strikes a special, deep chord. The film opens in the present, with a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog wandering across a partly wooded landscape, until the dog finds something: two human skeletons shallowly buried side-by-side. The film then shifts to the past, leaving us puzzled, although the meaning is made clear at the end of the film.
In the wild frontier of 1820s Oregon Territory, a man called Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is working for a rough crew of fur-trappers. The meat-hungry trappers are less impressed by Cookie’s considerable skills as a cook and baker than angry about his less-impressive skills as a hunter. A quiet, gentle soul, Cookie is happiest foraging alone in the forest for mushrooms and berries in the forest, where one day he comes across a naked man hiding under a bush. The naked man tells him he is being pursued but a group of Russians, and kind-hearted Cookie takes him in, feeding him and giving him shelter. It turns out that the man is not Native American as Cookie first assumed but a multi-lingual, well-educated Chinese immigrant adventurer named King-Lu (Orion Lee), seeking his fortune in the new territory. The two part ways but a a friendship is already taking root.
When the two meet again at the frontier trading post, their situation is reversed, and it is Cookie who is in dire straits after the fur-trappers fired him. It is King-Lu’s turn to offer Cookie food and shelter, in the form of an abandoned shack King-Lu is living in outside town. Spending time together, the friendship kindles and they share their stories and their dreams. Talkative King-Lu is ambitious, dreaming of striking it rich, while mild-mannered Cookie’s dreams are more modest, mostly a bakery where he can practice the trade he loves. King-Lu also has a bit of larceny in him, so when he learns about Cookie’s skill with baking, he hatches a plan to make money with that talent. All they need do is steal milk from that precious cow.
This is no small task as the cow is the closely-guarded prized possession of the town’s wealthy ruling power, a harsh man known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), but they come up with a plan. Soon they are selling what they call “oily cakes,” a donut-like fritter that Cookie makes with the pilfered milk, served with a little wild honey. The treats are a huge hit, selling out daily and pressing the friends to make more.
When a dignitary known as the Captain (Scott Shepard) plans to visit, Chief Factor is desperate to impress him with his taste and sophistication, and instructs the baker to create a particularly delicate pastry as a show piece, putting the friends uncomfortably close to his scrutiny.
Yes, there is a comic element to this scheme but there is an ominous feeling as well as we also know this can’t last. However, mostly this is a quiet, thoughtful drama about personal individual struggles as well as a portrait of male friendship. and a study of the rhythms of daily life in this frontier town. Like other Reichert’s films, it has a languid pace, an intimate personal focus, and invites leaning-in, rather than the wide-open spaces and myth making of the typical Western.
The visual aspect is striking, with scenes tightly framed and a focus on small details, often of the natural world around them, rather than the usual grand vistas of Westerns. The images are often quite beautiful, skillfully shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.
The key to the film is the friendship at its heart. There is enormous charm in both of the characters and feeling of authenticity and human warmth in their unlikely friendship. As they spend time together, they share bits of their personal history, although Cookie is more forthcoming than King-Lu. Cookie was orphaned when his father died, after a life traveling around, but found a sense of home with the baker to whom he was apprenticed. We learn less about brainy, resourceful King-Lu, mostly that he ran away from home when he was young, but there are intriguing hints, like his obvious education. Yet there is his telling comment when he hears about the milk cow’s pedigree, that she has an even more illustrious family history than his own.
Both friends see the danger in what they are doing but deciding when to get out is hard – the temptation of “one more time” is powerful. King-Lu pushes to keep going a little longer, despite Cookie’s fears. King-Lu is burn with ambition, seeing great possibility in the wide-open new world and dreaming of setting himself up in San Francisco to pursue great wealth. The more cautious Cookie just wants a comfortable home, a life where he can practice his love of baking, and he sees the risk more clearly. The dynamic of their differing personalities and the bond of friendship that ties them keeps us involved.
The acting is superb, with Lee and Magaro working brilliantly together and crafting wonderful, memorable, layered characters. In fact the film is filled with remarkable, often odd and other fine performances here too. Toby Jones is powerful as Chief Factor, a brutal man who both egotisitcal and insecure. He resents being on the frontier, wrapping himself in what luxuries he can and acting like a feudal lord of a manor. He treats others callously and disdains the struggling residents of the town he rules. Rene Auberjonois, in his last role, plays the unsmiling, hawk-eyed unnamed man with a crow, charged with guarding the precious cow. Gary Farmer plays a local Native American leader whose wife, played by Sabrina Mary Morrison, serves as his translator. Her translation is sometimes comic but the characters serve to draw attention to the increasing marginalization of the Native peoples and other references to racism at the outpost. Reichert incorporates these details but never comments on them pointedly.
FIRST COW is an affecting, thoughtful bittersweet tale that warm us with its contemplative portrait of friendship while it chills us with its economic brutality. It is hard to describe but it has a hauntingly wonder to it that lingers, as does the haunting memory of its remarkable characters and their timeless human bond. FIRST COW is available on demand on various platforms starting July 10.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars