In Kelly Reichardt’s new feature First Cow, two outsiders find each other in the forests of Oregon Territory. Together, they develop a lucrative lifestyle stealing milk from the “first cow” in the Gold Rush Pacific Northwest. When I described this premise to a friend, they said, “That is ridiculous and unbelievably whimsical.” And yeah, I’d say that’s about right. But this movie also tells stories of xenophobia and class warfare and the necessity of cooperation for survival. And this complexity makes the movie feel expansive, and leaves me thinking about it days after seeing it. (AEL: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker
First Cow opens on a young woman (Alia Shawkat, a delightful casting choice though she appears only briefly) on a walk with her dog. The dog finds a skull, and, fascinated, the young woman digs around it, eventually revealing two well-preserved skeletons, laid sweetly side by side.
Somewhere in the forests of early-nineteenth century Oregon Territory, a traveler (John Magaro) collects mushrooms from damp soil as the sun goes down. His character is named “Cookie” Figowitz, for the wheedling nickname his fellow fur trappers call him as they complain about their empty stomachs. Before he returns to camp to rest for the night, Cookie runs into a naked man cowering among the ferns. The man, King Lu (Orion Lee), explains that he is originally from China, has lived all over Europe, and now he’s on the run from his own group of fortune seekers. Cookie invites King to come rest at his camp, and King gratefully accepts.
The next day, King has disappeared from the tent, and Cookie’s group moves on. But at the fort where the trappers stop and disband, Cookie and King link back up. They settle in the little cabin King has built for himself in the woods. I love the scene in which King and Cookie make their home together. Although we learn a bit about their personal histories throughout the film, mostly we can only imagine what they’ve been through. And yet, after all the social outcasting and the struggling for survival, here they are, caring about the creature comforts of wildflowers in a vase, of a delicious meal and a drink in the evening.
In a series of scenes as Cookie and King collect wood or sit to rest, King monologues about his past and about the society and economy of the Pacific Northwest. Cookie is mostly quiet, but it’s clear this is how he likes it. The two appreciate each other in an obviously genuine way.
Nearby, a wealthy British aristocrat type Factor (a comically buttoned-up Toby Jones) has been bragging about his cow, the “first cow” in the territory. Cookie and King quickly drum up a mostly-harmless plot to share some of the wealth. At night, Cookie coaxes the cow to give him some of her milk.
With their new spoils, Cookie makes buttermilk biscuits, a comfort that has been otherwise impossible to find in an Oregon settlement. People buy the biscuits gratefully, and suddenly Cookie and King have a lucrative business running.
They soon strike up a deal with Factor himself. Cookie wonders if the aristocrat would recognize the taste of his own milk, but King assures him that human nature will protect them here: nobody wants to believe they’re being stolen from. Cookie bakes a cake for Factor with his own milk and wild blueberries, and Factor takes it delightedly, nostalgic for British teatime comforts. Factor takes Cookie, King, and some of his visiting friends outside to show off the cow to them. The cow is affectionate with Cookie, since, of course, she already knows him. “She gives so little milk,” Factor says, bewildered.
Factor’s oblivious is not shared by his companions, however. Several indigenous Americans live and work in Factor’s house, and Factor’s wife, indigenous herself, translates for them. Their wry alertness emphasizes the ignorant absurdity in Factor’s pride over his “first cow.”
With its 4:3 aspect ratio and contemplative slowness, this movie is solidly part of a canon of modern character-driven Westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James or Reichardt’s previous Meek’s Cutoff. At the same time, the film’s mix of playfulness and real loss has more in common with the original True Grit.
What I love about this movie is its lack of violence. We see evidence of death and physical peril, and destructive effects of colonialism, racism, and abuse of natural resources, but none of it plays out in physical violence. Rather, most of the interactions we see onscreen in this movie are tenderly funny. It makes for a wonderful story that highlights the strength of friendship in tenuous and even dangerous circumstances.
© Amelie Lasker (3/9/20) FF2 Media
Featured Image: Orion Lee as “King” and John Magaro as “Cookie.”
Bottom Photo: John Magaro as “Cookie.”
Photo Credits: A24
Q: Does First Cow pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?