'First Cow' Is A Richly Absorbing Tale Of Friendship, Crime And Capitalism

Mar 5, 2020
Originally published on March 6, 2020 5:33 am
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This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "First Cow" is a 19th century Western about two strangers in the Oregon Territory who become friends and decide to start their own baking business. It's the latest film from writer-director Kelly Reichardt, whose other independent dramas include "Certain Women" and "Wendy And Lucy." Film critic Justin Chang says that "First Cow" is one of her best.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The films of Kelly Reichardt are often described as modest, a word that can sound condescending even when it's meant as a compliment. It's true that Reichardt's movies are usually slender character studies set in the rural Pacific Northwest and are heavier on atmosphere than plot. Not much seems to happen from moment to moment, but what does happen carries extraordinary weight because Reichardt is so attuned to the finer details, the rhythms of human conversation and the minutia of how ordinary life unfolds. She makes gripping drama out of the moments another filmmaker might have left out. Reichardt's new film "First Cow" is one of her best. She and her writing partner Jon Raymond adapted it from Raymond's 2004 novel "The Half-Life," and they've come up with a richly absorbing tale of friendship, crime and capitalism set in the Oregon Territory circa 1820.

We enter this world alongside Otis Figowitz, who goes by Cookie because he works as a cook for a group of fur trappers making their way west. It's a thankless job. There's little to eat besides mushrooms and berries, and the hungry trappers often take out their anger on him. But Cookie, played by John Magaro, is a kind and gentle soul. One night, he stumbles upon a Chinese immigrant named King Lu, played by Orion Lee, who's shivering naked in the underbrush, hiding from some dangerous men on his tail. Cookie wraps King Lu in a blanket and gives him food and shelter, and an unlikely friendship begins. Some time later, the two men are rooming together in a small cabin near a shantytown where trappers and merchants have come to make their fortune.

It's around this time that the cow of the title, the first dairy cow ever to set hoof in this part of the country, makes her entrance. She belongs to a powerful English landowner known as the chief factor, played with unctuous flair by Toby Jones. For him, the cow is both a status symbol and a sign of progress. For Cookie and King Lu, the cow represents an opportunity to stake their own claim on the American dream. One night, they sneak onto the chief factor's land and milk the cow in secret. That milk becomes the key ingredient in Cookie's deep-fried oily cakes, which quickly become a hot seller to the point where supply can barely keep up with demand. Ironically, the chief factor himself becomes a regular customer, completely oblivious to the fact that he's being robbed behind his back. As they keep milking the cow every night, Cookie becomes concerned that their theft will be discovered. But King Lu, a risk-taker by nature, tells him not to worry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

ORION LEE: (As King Lu) The royal cow.

JOHN MAGARO: (As Cookie Figowitz) Maybe we should halt for a while. I think the captain said something.

LEE: (As King Lu) Now is our time. Another cow is on the way, more cows after that.

MAGARO: (As Cookie Figowitz) The chief factor...

LEE: (As King Lu) Is a fool. He misses everything right under his nose.

CHANG: Magaro and Lee are both quietly charismatic performers, and they have a wonderfully wry odd couple rapport. Like any good small business owners, their characters have well-matched skills and temperaments. Cookie is the artisan devoted to his craft while King Lu provides the entrepreneurial knowhow. Watching these two men plotting and occasionally arguing over their next moves is one of the film's purest pleasures. Together, they make "First Cow" a captivating underdog story as well as a humorous and suspenseful demonstration of American enterprise in action. One reason their tender camaraderie feels so special is that it's so different from everything around it. Reichardt captures the harshness of the landscape and of the society that has sprung up within it, marked by cruel divisions, fierce competition and profound scarcity. The visual details are utterly convincing. The muddy wooden houses never feel like sets, and the men's ragged clothes are too lived in to look like costumes. In this unforgiving terrain, you realize why so many are willing to pay good silver for those tasty oily cakes.

This isn't the first time Reichardt and her great cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt have transported us back to the distant past. Back in 2010, she made "Meek's Cutoff," an Oregon Trail Western that, like this movie, exposed the cracks in the myth of manifest destiny. But "First Cow" also reminded me of "Old Joy," her achingly sad and beautiful film about two men, longtime friends who take one last leisurely road trip together. Reichardt taps into a deep well of masculine melancholy, teasing out depths of intimacy that we aren't used to seeing in American movies. "First Cow" is a buddy comedy and an engrossing historical fiction, but I like to think of it as an exquisite love story from one of our finest filmmakers, and there's nothing modest about that.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times.

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