An tender parable of the American mythos, First Cow unfolds with gentle patience, inviting the viewer into its unhurried rhythm through immersive visuals and richly detailed mise-en-scène. Like all of her films since Old Joy (2006), filmmaker Kelly Reichardt demonstrates a deep appreciation and understanding of the Pacific Northwestern culture and landscape. The green-and-grey Oregon environment, here speckled with the colors of dark mud and autumnal leaves, is the perfect ecology for Reichardt’s tender tales of human fragility and resilience.
At the center of this particular narrative is Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a quietly unassuming cook traveling with gruff fur trappers and traders in 19th-century Oregon Territory. When Cookie quite literally stumbles upon King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run and hiding naked in the forest, an unlikely friendship forms. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond allow the dynamics of this newfound camaraderie to unfold on-screen through subtlety and with a steady pace. We can discern the nature of these characters through their actions and postures as much as their words, the latter of which are spent mostly on sharing their dreams and ambitions while eking out a modest existence in King-Lu’s makeshift shack. And so when Cookie shares with King-Lu about the territory’s first milking cow arriving by river for a local so-called aristocratic landowner, Chief Factor (a perfectly cast Toby Jones) and we see a glint in King-Lu’s eye, we can also surmise the plan the pair of friends might hatch. The duo milk the cow at night and use this precious ingredient to make oily cakes to sell to the locals. The cakes are a commercial success, but as the milk is stolen, the risky venture will ultimately be costly. Indeed, as First Cow takes a dark turn in its final act and reveals the inherent violence of capitalism and the American experiment, it nevertheless retains its tenderness through the friendship between two souls who have encountered and embraced one another in the Oregon wild.
With its modest narrative, First Cow is the mythic story of America writ small, an examination of the American ethos in all of its glory and brokenness. A brief conversation between Cookie and King-Lu is exemplary of this: one man notes that the surrounding country feels new or fresh with possibility, while the other disagrees, commenting that the land is old and ancient. The characters’ various accents reveal a smorgasbord of immigrants from faraway lands—Russia, China, Scotland, New Jersey—who make up this quirky community somehow living together in the new/old world. The environment here is rich in detail, right down to the strange neighbors Cookie encounters; the best of these is credited only as “Man with Raven,” a gruff, scruffy old man played by the great character actor René Auberjonois. Moreover, the ongoing presence of local Native Americans within the community is noteworthy here, and Reichardt takes great care to subtly and cinematically critique the colonialist mentality of the settlers. When Cookie and King-Lu are invited to Chief Factor’s house to prepare dessert for Factor’s guest—a military captain (Scott Shepherd)—it’s a perfect clash of cultures and classes. We see Factor’s Native American wife (Lily Gladstone) in a quiet and demure pose, dressed in European clothing; when the men have left the room, the camera lingers, allowing us to witness her break into a smile and speak comfortably in her native language with her female companion. It’s a small moment in the film, but rich with meaning and significance—there are hidden treasures, buried in the riverbanks and margins, waiting for us to see them if we are willing to linger and pay careful attention. First Cow is entirely comprised of such small-but-significant moments which make us more aware of the world around us. Like the oily cakes Cookie and King-Lu create, the film’s ingredients are simple, but the results are richly delectable and well worth coming back for seconds.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9231040/