First Cow is the story of Cookie Figowitz, an orphan dreamer, who has made his way from the settled East to the Oregon Territory in hopes of saving up for his dream. Cookie comes across another dreamer, King Lu, a Chinese immigrant, in the forest and the two men strike up a bond of friendship. Though, in order to make their dreams come true they need milk and the only way to get it is by stealing it from a man no one steals from and gets away with it. The film stars Joe Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Ewen Bremner, Gary Farmer, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, Jared Kasowski, Mitchell Saddleback, Alia Shawkat, and Toby Jones. It is directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond. The film is available for rent on Video on Demand platforms on July 21st and for purchase now.
What I'm truly in awe of is Kelly Reichardt's sense of place. She's truly a Northwestern filmmaker, not that she's from the Northwest, but she gets us. She understands the taciturn nature of the people, the constant battle between human settlement and the environment, and the whimsical, but unforgiving nature of the landscape.
I got so hungry watching Cookie in his foraging. He finds wild mushrooms, huckleberries, and blueberries and catches a wild salmon right out of the river. Then, when Cookie and King Lu settle on their big idea, "oily cakes," my mouth watered. A donut like fried dough drizzled in honey with cinnamon scraped on top. Even in those dirty hands, the cakes look delectable. Though, even more impressive is Cookie's frontier pancake with fresh blueberries. The food takes on a will of its own, goading Cookie and King Lu into pursuing more and more, getting greedy.
Because First Cow is a myriad of things, it's not only a fantastic food movie, but a heist movie as well. It's the gentlest heist you'll ever see. King Lu keeps a look out as Cookie goes to milk the cow. Cookie doesn't just take the milk, he doesn't manhandle the cow, he talks to it. He treats the cow very kindly and tells it how its milk will be used. It's so sweet to watch him interact with the cow and that sweetness unfortunately comes back on him. When the Chief Factor invites him to see the cow, the cow he's never supposed to have seen, the cow comes to him. She sniffs and nuzzles him because she recognizes a friend. The Chief Factor doesn't notice, but the Captain definitely does and files that away for later.
It's that gentleness and kindness that pervades this film. The frontier was hardscrabble and rough for people and especially for gentle people. One of the first scenes we see with Cookie is that he flips over a salamander that got flipped onto its back. That feeling continues as we see Cookie treating King Lu like a human, despite the strange circumstance in which they meet. It's with that kindness that Cookie and King Lu's friendship thrives. Cookie never sees King Lu as anything less than a fellow human even as the other white men around him regard King Lu with suspicion and prejudice.
That gentleness is all thanks to the stellar performance of Joe Magaro. He is able to do the quiet, polite man so well. He's got an excellently emotive face and a meekness in his physicality that comes across so well. Though, his counterpart in Orion Lee as King Lu is spectacular as well. Lee brings out the ambition and greed of his character in the way he interacts with the white men at the fort. Yet, he's able to pull back and show the kindness and affection for his business partner and friend, Cookie.
If you've read many of my reviews, you know I love a platonic love story and this is one of the best I've come across. The film is filled with this great friendship, excellent food, and a gentle heist. It's a more thoughtful portrait of the West than we've seen in a long time with a great deal of diversity in characters without sacrificing the more brutal aspects of life on the frontier. Seek this wonderful movie out.