Film review: ‘FIRST COW’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The hypnotic but slow-moving First Cow is what might be termed an arthouse western, a film that takes place in the traditional western setting but one that eschews heroic mythology or sanitised views of the past.  This story of an unusual friendship and economic ambition in the brutal 1820’s Oregon frontier takes a while to find its footing but delivers a quietly potent humanist fable.

The film focuses on a character known as Cookie (John Magaro), the thoughtful taciturn cook for a very grungy hairy-looking group of fur trappers.  When Cookie encounters a fugitive Chinese man named King-Lu (Orion Lee) the two team-up and forge a rustic life in a kind of frontier share house arrangement.  Looking for opportunities to improve their literally dirt-poor situation, they begin producing a delicacy they call oily cakes for the local trappers.  To do this, though, they have to secretly steal milk from the cow belonging to the local administrator known as the Factor (Toby Jones).  When the Factor becomes an eager oily cake customer, Cookie and King-Lu fear they’ll be found out and severely punished.

This small and unusual story won’t thrill all viewers.  Scenes unspool at a leisurely pace and much of the film is just about the two men musing on their business plans. Its appeal lies largely in the way it immerses us in their world.  The film captures the ruggedness of frontier life with Cookie and King-Lu sharing a dirt floor shack and often foraging in the forest for food.  The film convincingly shows how tough it was to eke out a life at that time and how a single cow could appear like an el dorado for these people.

The film also cleverly integrates a number of literary references into this low-key story.  It sets the scenes with a quote from poet William Blake, Cookie and King-Lu’s plans for upward mobility sound a lot like George and Lenny’s in Of Mice and Men and the way characters describe the oily cakes as evoking memories recalls the madeleine in Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time.

Those familiar with director Kelly Reichardt’s previous films like Wendy and Lucy will know she operates at a different pace to most filmmakers.  Whereas the majority of Hollywood films try to create a sense of momentum in which characters are caught up in the narrative like someone in a vehicle they can’t quite control, she prefers to show characters simply existing in their world, trying to eke out a life and not necessarily racing toward the next narrative turning point.

Even though Cookie remains an enigmatic figure throughout the film, John Magaro does a wonderful job of making him a sympathetic character.  We admire his resourcefulness and become involved in his attempt to improve his life through the modest oily cake business.  Orion Lee is also wonderful as the more articulate and worldly King-Lu. His composure in the face of frontier brutality is strangely uplifting.  Also, Toby Jones is amusingly contemptible as a pompous symbol of British colonialism.

To some, this restrained deceptively simple film will seem like a bit of an oddity but those who allow themselves to be immersed in its world will find it as fulfilling as a feed of top shelf oily cakes.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Kelly Reichardt.

Release date: 29th Apr 2021.

Running time: 121 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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