Review: ‘First Cow,’ starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“First Cow”

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Culture Representation: Set in early 19th century Oregon, the drama “First Cow” is about an unexpected friendship between a white cook and a Chinese immigrant in a community of white fur trappers, Native Americans and a few white noblemen.

Culture Clash: Conflicts arise between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when the movie’s main characters steal milk from a nobleman’s cow to start their own makeshift bakery business.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse Westerns that take their time to tell a story.

Orion Lee and John Magaro in “First Cow” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

Before seeing the Western drama “First Cow,” it helps to be familiar with the work of director Kelly Reichardt. Her previous credits as a movie writer/director include 2016’s “Certain Women,” 2013’s “Night Moves,” 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff” and 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” If you’ve seen any of these or her other movies, then you already know that she has a very deliberate pacing to her films, which take their time for people to get to know the main characters. Many of her movies utilize the power of silence to great effect, which is the opposite inclination of most of today’s films that try to fill up space with witty dialogue or high-octane action scenes.

In other words, if you think Westerns should be about gun battles and conquering frontiers, then “First Cow” is not the movie for you. Instead, the battles in this movie are more understated. They have to do with the everyday struggles that frontiersmen (this story is told entirely from the perspective of the male characters) experienced in the undeveloped territory of early 19th century Oregon. Even in the wild, wild West, they were still constrained by a social hierarchy.

The brief opening scene of the movie takes place in present-day Oregon, when a woman’s dog has dug up something unusual in a wooded area. The unnamed woman (played by Alia Shawkat) discovers that the dog has found two skeletons lying side by side, and one of them has its hand over the other’s hand. At the end of the movie, we find out how those people got there. There’s a quote from William Blake before the opening credits: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s something to keep in mind as the story unfolds.

For the rest of the movie, viewers are transported back in time to 19th century Oregon, where quiet loner Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is traveling as a cook with a group of fur trappers, who are dressed like they’re at a Daniel Boone fan convention. One of the trappers is a Scotsman named Lloyd (played by Ewen Bremner), who’s a pragmatist for the group. Not much happens at first, as Cookie does mundane things, such eat yellow mushrooms that he finds in the woods.

But one night, Cookie encounter a naked Chinese man who’s hiding in the woods. The man says his name is King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) and that he’s very hungry. Cookie gives King-Lu a blanket and something to eat and drink. King-Lu then opens up that Russian men are chasing after him because he might have killed one of their men because they accused one of King-Lu’s friends of being a thief. King-Lu says he’s naked because he stashed his clothes in some trees as he was running away. King-Lu thanks Cookie for his help, and the two men go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, there’s an intriguing new arrival in the area. A well-built female cow has been delivered to local nobleman Chief Factor (played by Toby Jones). The animal is the talk of the community because it’s the first cow to live in the area. The cow is truly considered a luxury, but Chief Factor just keeps the cow tied up to show it off rather than to use the milk to help feed anyone.

Not long after the cow arrives, Cookie and King-Lu run into each other again at a local saloon. King-Lu, who says that the Russians left the area without finding him, invites Cookie back to his place to drink some more. It’s a very modest home (nothing more than a shack), but Cookie (who’s an orphan from Maryland) feels more comfortable here than he does with the fur trappers he’s been living with during his travels in Oregon.

As the two men develop a friendship, they decide to trespass at night on  Chief Factor’s property, where the cow is held, and secretly milk the cow, who is gentle and friendly. It leads to them to come up with the idea to make biscuits (called oily cakes) from the cow’s milk and to sell the biscuits to the local trappers.

The biscuits are a delicious, instant hit and they always sell out. Thus starts a pattern: Cookie and King-Lu both sneak onto the property at night. Cookie milks the cow, while King-Lu acts as a lookout. Cookie is the creative cook for the business, while King-Lu is the more entrepreneurial- minded partner who shrewdly thinks up ways to expand their business. He even imagines that they could make enough money to someday buy their own cow. However, Cookie is more hesitant, because he worries about how much longer they can continue to steal the cow’s milk without getting caught.

Their biscuits become so in-demand that their customers sometimes push each other out of the way to buy the food. King-Lu takes advantage of this frenzy by auctioning off the last biscuit to the highest bidder. When people ask what the biscuit’s ingredients are, King-Lu says, “Ancient Chinese secret.” Cookie becomes so attached to the cow that he begins talking to her while he milks her.

Even when the cow’s owner, Chief Factor, shows up to buy some biscuits, he doesn’t detect the taste of milk, and therefore he has no idea that his cow’s milk is being used to make the biscuits. Chief Factor is so impressed with Cookie’s baking skills (Cookie has previous training as a baker) that he hires him to make blueberry claufotis for a dinner party that he’s having.

Chief Factor also invites the two men to his home to present the claufotis to his main dinner guest: an out-of-town visitor called Captain (played by Scott Shepherd), a colleague who thinks that this rough area can’t possibly have sophisticated meals. But when Chief Factor takes Captain, Cookie and King-Lu out to the back of his property to show off the cow, Captain notices that the cow is acting a little to friendly to Cookie.

Riechardt co-wrote the “First Cow” screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, the author of the novel of the same time. There’s a level of authenticity that the movie conveys, because it shows that life in this wild frontier could be filled with stretches of tedium for unmarried, childless men who are focused on trying to make a living and possibly get rich.

It’s that possibility to reinvent themselves as potential wealthy entrepreneurs that keeps them motivated in this harsh environment where they aren’t living a traditional and comfortable life. But just like Gold Rush hopefuls getting blinded by impatient greed, there’s the possibility that Cookie and King-Lu could succumb to the same vice. The heart of the story is the friendship between these two men and whether or not it can survive materialistic temptations.

A24 Films released “First Cow” in select U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.