Kelly Reichardt is known for her movies having a slow pace. Her films like Night Moves & Meek’s Cutoff have a deliberate stillness that serves those films. What sets apart First Cow, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that not only does the deliberately slow pace serve the film, it is absolutely necessary. More on that later.
First Cow is set during the fur trap era of Oregon. We meet our protagonist Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) as he is foraging in the woods for meal prep. Cookie is a kind and gentle soul, he is traveling west to Oregon for a new start. He is with a group of rather rough fur traders as their cook. It is not that he isn’t cut out for the masculine dominated trade, he uses his skills elsewhere to become useful. It is during one of his foraging outings that he meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant heading west for a new beginning as well. King-Lu is obviously a bit down on his luck and Cookie, being the kind man he is, gives him food, clothes, and shelter. This is the beginning of a fast friendship that blooms further once they reach their destination.
The two are a great match, one is a gifted cook and knows his way around a pastry, the other is a business minded entrepreneur. So, when they happen to see the very first cow to make it into the region, a plan starts to come together. The cow is owned by the wealthy and powerful Chief Factor (Toby Jones), they will have to sneak out in the middle of the night to get the milk. King crawls up a tree to keep watch, Cookie milks. The soft tender moments of Cookie milking showcase what makes this film so enduring. His manner is so antithetical to what you would imagine a pioneer in 1820’s untamed west.
The milk is used to make mouthwatering, honey drizzled “cakes” which the duo brings to the local market to lines and lines of eager and hungry settlers looking for a taste of “home.” Since there has been no milk in the region, and the only cow is new and being kept for private use. So goes the routine of stealing milk and making cakes, the duo doing everything they can to strike it rich and make a living.
That is the story, these men stealing milk from a cow and trying to survive. You can find its themes on capitalism and classism spread throughout. Commodity and necessity bringing out the best and worst in humanity. The deliberate pace and tone that Reichardt sets is engrossing and often mesmerizing. It’s about slowing down, this is the life of pioneers, there is no hustle. When the camera sits on a scene of King-Lu chopping wood and Cookie sweeping for a few minutes it’s not some pretentious decision made by the filmmakers. It serves the story and the narrative tone, it draws us into the characters.
With a supporting cast that perfectly blends into its gloomy, forest background, including Rene Auberjonois and Ewen Bremner. Reichard and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, whose script is based on his own novel, have found a way to endear us to two great characters, a wholesome friendship, and a beautiful brown cow.
4.5 out of 5