First Cow (2019)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

The real fortune is the friends we made along the way.

Friendship is one of mankind’s most rewarding enterprises, and no feat is rarer for adult men than to make a new friend. A film about such a rare pleasure is First Cow, itself a rare pleasure.

It’s the 19th century American frontier, and Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is tasked with feeding a fur trapper crew, a gang of growling ruffians who bully and belittle him. A grave rudeness, given how kind a soul Cookie seems to be, a man meek to the point where it’s pronounced “mee”. Proof of this is found when he’s out one night foraging and suddenly comes across a naked Chinese man, King-Lung (X), hiding in the shrubbery from some Russians who want to kill him. It’s eyebrow-raising to type this out, but the encounter happens with little consternation from either party. 

Cookie gets King-Lung out of this particular jam, and the kindness doesn’t go unrequited when they some time later cross paths again in a settler camp. Cookie’s out of work, King-Lung has a cabin nearby, and so they shack up. Here, through quiet scenes of co-existence and some prodding as to the background and skills of one another, King-Lung hatches a scheme to make their fortune selling Cookie’s cakes. Those cakes need milk to make, and luck would have it the first cow to ever set foot in Oregon just came in by boat. A covert nighttime milking later, and business is booming. But how much milk can be taken before it’s noticed and the wrath of its owner incurred?

The small, sweet treats that so capture the taste buds and wallets of wild frontiersmen is perhaps a good metaphor for First Cow, a film set in the lawless frontier where grimy opportunists scrap for any advantage, businessmen break down the economics of punishing unruly laborers (yes, a dead worker is lost labor, but it might be offset by what fear can do to productivity!) and demure people like Cookie are threatened with beatings and robbery.

The cutthroat realities of frontier life sound Peckinpah-esque, but in Reichardt’s hands the vibe is closer to Wes Anderson, with a picture rich in detail and texture shot in the narrower picture ratio she also used for her last period piece Meek’s Cutoff, a film with a much more cynical view of the same harsh socio-economic realities faced by 19th century settlers. 

Like Reichardt’s other films, First Cow is not big on wild cinematic arm waving and grand spectacle, and approaches its story with the same matter-of-factness that made films like Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women powerful and strangely haunting tales of disconnection and vulnerability. That same vulnerability is there in First Cow, but Reichardt now composes with more light-hearted and good-natured chords. A cold world, but with hearty cakes to dispel the gloom and take you back to simpler times. 

Magaro plays Cookie with an almost inscrutable receptiveness to the world around him, and Orion Lee shines with a charismatic optimism underpinned by the hard-earned pragmatism of a man who has seen his share of hardship simply due to being Asian in a white man’s world. Together, they provide a wholesome engine to a film set in an unruly time where people only care for the “i” in society. Blessed are those who can make a connection, for they have truly struck gold in a new and disinterested world. 

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