Set in 1820s Oregon during the frontier days, the film introduces us to Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) as he carefully scavenges for berries and mushrooms to feed his boisterous band of virile fur trappers.
On his search, he happens upon a lizard writhing on its back and gently flips it back on its feet, a small gesture of grace that clearly sets him apart from his comparatively more gruff comrades. In an uncivilized land, even small acts of civility can go a long way.
During another outing in the woods, he encounters an on-the-run Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) and true to his character, Cookie offers to cook for him.
Together, they find both friendship and a business opportunity, realized when King-Lu partakes in one of Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” (think an old West version of a fried donut) and encourages him to set up a shop for them.
It doesn’t take long for them to sell rapidly (like hotcakes, as the expression goes) and catch the tastebuds of the aristocrat Chief Factor (Toby Jones), whose wealth affords him the luxury of having the first cow in the Oregon territory. Little does Factor know, Cookie and King-Lu are actually using milk stolen from his prized cow to make their fast-selling confection.
Teaming up with frequent screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt has crafted yet another naturalistic and patiently paced picture that solidifies her as a powerhouse of independent cinema. To watch one of her films is to inherit a new mindset of how movies can move within us and inspire us to see the world in a brand new way.
As with almost all of her other work, Reichardt also serves as the editor and establishes a measured tempo from the outset.
The present-day prologue opens with a tugboat moving slowly from one side of the 4:3 frame to the other, cutting just before the vessel entirely clears the shot. First Cow is filled with small choices like this that may seem insignificant but bear the mark of a meticulous artist with breathtaking control of her craft.
Reichardt’s vision is aided greatly by two fantastic lead performances by Magaro and Lee, whose on-screen chemistry is the heart and soul of the film.
Magaro’s work as the soft-spoken Cookie reveals the vulnerability and open-heartedness of a gentle spirit who wants to make the world a better place, even if it’s just in small ways.
The scenes in which Cookie makes small talk with the cow as he’s milking her are filled with a tenderness and reverence for animal life that I found to be incredibly moving.
Lee brings a combination of entrepreneurial gumption and fugitive’s vigilance to his portrayal of the wise and slyly funny King-Lu.
Despite its relatively sparse narrative spread out over a two-hour runtime, Reichardt packs the film with rich symbolism and subtext about American enterprise and the capitalistic forces that are constantly at play.
A river-set scene around the film’s midpoint, during which Cookie and King-Lu debate on what it takes to get ahead in this still-developing land, lends fascinating insight into the decision-making process behind even the most modest of start-ups.
First Cow is a delicate and quietly observed work from a filmmaker who continues to brilliantly blaze her own trail in the wild frontier of modern moviemaking.
New to streaming this weekend
Available on demand is The Rental, a horror film starring Dan Stevens and Alison Brie about two couples who rent a vacation home and begin to suspect the owner of the home is spying on them.
Available on Netflix is The Kissing Booth 2, a teen romantic comedy starring Joey King and Joel Courtney about a high school senior who juggles a long-distance relationship with a new friendship with a classmate.
Available on Amazon Prime is Radioactive, a biopic starring Rosamund Pike and Anya Taylor-Joy about Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie and her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.