Out in the old Northwestern frontier, survival is hard to come by. Friends too. The shy and quiet Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) knows this all too well. Tagging along with a burly group of fur trappers in the Oregonian forest, Cookie minds his business as the group’s cook even as his trail gang aims their insults at him constantly. Even so, Cookie keeps his head and voice down; after all, he is the group’s feeder and they need him just as much as he needs them but that doesn’t mask the feeling of loneliness set within Magaro’s down eyes.
However, FIRST COW isn’t really a tale about loneliness, nor is it really about a cow (a disappointment for cow hijinks enthusiasts). Instead, director Kelly Reichardt and her constant writing partner Jonathan Raymond work from Raymond’s own novel to craft a slow and bittersweet tale about a special friendship found in the wildest parts of a growing country. That friendship of course relating to Cookie and his soon to be business partner King-Lu (Orion Lee), a charismatic Chinese immigrant he first meets deep in the woods, naked and cold and fleeing from some Russians out to kill him. However, just as soon as the two men meet, they just as quickly part. Even so, the Oregonian wild has a funny way of connecting people and soon the two men meet once again in a ramshackle settlement. Getting to know each other, the two men, each with their own aspirations to make it big, hatch a business venture that utilizes Cookie’s love for baking and King’s penchant for charismatic business dealings. Of course, as per the title, this plan involves the illegal milking of the area’s literal “first cow” which is owned by a bourgeois British man (Toby Jones, charmingly bourgeois and British).
Despite a setup that seems to hold promise for some literally old-school hijinks in store for our unique duo, one must remember that this is a Reichardt film and for better or worse the director is much more interested in the quiet, developing moments of genuine friendship between two men moreso than energetic bovine antics. While it would’ve been nice to see the director be a little more lively with this story, FIRST COW demonstrates what makes Reichardt such an intriguing filmmaker. Like her other films, FIRST COW effectively transports viewers into a specific time and place, this time the lush forests and scrappy small villages of 1800's-ish Oregon, a setting that is just as beautiful as it is dangerous. Thanks to Christopher Blauvelt, the film manages a grainy and natural look that allows for the film to let its nature centric imagery shine. Along with the use of natural lighting, Reichardt and her camera crew once again paint a pretty (yet still realistic) portrait of life in America at a certain time. Additionally, Reichardt and her writer dig up moments of genuine emotion in even the littlest of moments as Cookie and King-Lu’s relationship and business venture slowly but surely come into sweet fruition. One scene in particular, where Cookie and King-Lu first test out their business of selling baked goods to traveling settlers, exemplifies Reichardt’s ability to make a “small” moment like a person making their first sale thrive with joyous energy.
While other films break their backs trying to wring out small moments of emotional relatability, FIRST COW lets its two central characters breathe and grow accustomed to one another making their eventual friendship ring true with enjoyable chemistry. Magaro, speaking with soft volume as Cookie, effectively portrays a sweet, gentle man quietly making his way through the world. When finally teaming up with Lee’s more lively King-Lu, the two create an effective yin and yang relationship that never succumbs to the trappings of other usual “burgeoning friendship” films. Here, you’ll never see Cookie and King-Lu randomly lash out at one another or find some small thing to throw a wrench in their friendship; they simply enjoy and care for one another in their own lowkey way even as the odds continue to stack against these two outsiders. Like other Reichardt films, FIRST COW is quick to showcase the bitter realties of its characters’ lives but here the director softens the bitterness with the notion that, yes, a good friend goes a long way in making life a little more enjoyable.
With such interesting characters on hand, it was a bummer to see some of Reichardt’s usual tics show up. Particularly, the flow and pacing of FIRST COW which, while in line with Reichardt and Raymond’s approach to Cookie and King-Lu’s slowly blossoming friendship, can get a little too lackadaisical in actually moving the story along. At just about two hours, FIRST COW meanders amongst the long-winded shots of nature (just like other Reichardt films) for a few moments too long. While this is more of a personal quibble (the imagery here does actually have an argument for having it being lingered on so much), I could never shake the feeling that while Reichardt was setting the visual mood for her story, she could probably just as well focus more on the actual relationship at play. Whatever the case, it would’ve been nice to see the filmmaker step a bit more out of her comfort zone with this film but I guess by doing that, FIRST COW wouldn’t have those unique moments already found within.
Make no mistake, FIRST COW soars more than it dips because of Reichardt and co.’s unique approach to the story of friendship. Throughout all of her works, the filmmaker always manages to find resounding humanity in the lesser known parts of America both past and present. With this specific tale of two immigrants making their own way in a supposed land of promise, Reichardt once again speaks volumes about survival, companionship, and America itself in even the smallest of moments.