Moviegoer: First Cow

John Magaro and Orion Lee in the film First Cow.

To live the American dream, you may need to steal a little milk 

Cookie (John Magaro: Orange Is the New Black) is a man too gentle for the times he’s living in. Hired on by trappers as a cook (hence the name Cookie) while the group heads to the Oregon territories, he’s constantly harassed and threatened by his fellow travelers. Cookie loves the land, but this new area proves a challenge for foraging and hunting, leaving bellies empty and tempers high.  

One night, while foraging for wild mushrooms, Cookie comes upon a naked man, King Lu (Orion Lee: Warrior). Lu tells him he’s fleeing a group of Russians after killing a man in self-defense. Cookie decides to feed, clothe, and shelter Lu and continues to hide him when his fellow travelers mention they ran into Russians offering a reward for an Asian man they’re looking for. They have to part ways so Lu won’t be discovered, but Cookie seems bolstered by having a small, kind interaction for once on this harsh and unforgiving trail.  

But when Cookie makes it to the Oregon fort, the milk of human kindness isn’t there either. There’s no milk at all, in fact, with men using flour and water to create paste-like hardtack and dry bread. That changes when Chief Factor (Toby Jones: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), the wealthy man who lords over the small fort, has a cow shipped upstream so he may have milk in his tea. It’s wasteful for just one man, but such is the life of the “haves,” who get to flaunt their things in front of the “have-nots.”  

When Cookie finds Lu again at the settlement, they’re overjoyed. Lu immediately moves Cookie into his shack and they begin a content life together. Cookie laments he can’t make anything truly special for Lu without milk, so Lu suggests they steal some, just enough to make a few oily cakes for them to enjoy. When Cookie demurs, Lu explains that “history hasn’t gotten here yet,” meaning the societal structures that keep both Cookie and Lu from achieving their dreams are still back in Boston or St. Louis, and here they have a chance to make their dreams a reality before society catches up with them along the trail.  

Soon, Cookie and Lu are stealing milk from Factor’s cow every evening to make and sell fresh oily cakes in the morning to the settlement. The sweet treats are a boon. Men line up around the block for a chance to buy oily cakes. Even Factor begins to indulge in the food-craze of the Northwest territory. Cookie and Lu are finally able to make money, and their dream of starting a bakery together in California is finally within reach.  

Can Cookie and Lu live out their American Dream? Or will history find the men before they can reach their goals? 

A moving look at business, tenderness, and how humanity ruins both, First Cow is strangely brilliant for a film about milk theft. Director Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), who also co-wrote and edited the film, is a slow, meticulous filmmaker who rewards attention with a beautifully crafted story. Reichardt isn’t interested in quick cuts, she lets the camera linger, sometimes sweeping it back and forth to tell silent little stories in the background. If you offer Reichardt your attention, she’ll give you back a brilliant glimpse of the wilds of frontier life, and wryly show you just how similar that world is to our own. The shot of an around-the-block line forming for an oily cake is reminiscent of the recent cronut and Magnolia cupcakes food crazes in New York.  

But Reichardt isn’t a filmmaker in the modern sense of the word so much as a classic storyteller. In fact, she seems to go out of her way to eschew the typical frills and pomp of filmmaking. There’s no grand soundtrack or sweeping vistas, even the big fight scene mostly happens out of frame. First Cow isn’t shot in Academy standard aspect ratio (or widescreen which would make the most out of the wild landscapes), but in 1.37:1. It’s a boxy frame, reminiscent of the historic photographs and first moving picture images. It also forces the actors and subjects to be in a much smaller area, creating an intimacy between the screen and the viewer. The effect is striking, First Cow doesn’t feel like a film so much as an act of observance.  

Because the film is a laser-focused study of the bonds formed by two outsiders, it’s imperative that the leads are strong. Thankfully, Reichardt has two fantastic performances from both Magaro and Lee. As Cookie, Magaro is the sort of soft-spoken sweet man who is easily pushed around by posturing peers. But Cookie doesn’t let the world rob him of his tender nature, he’s trusting and kind to a fault, even talking sweetly to the cow every time he visits her to steal milk. It’s an incredibly endearing performance, with just enough hints at the tragedy in his back story to really show how the world shaped him.  

Lee’s role as an outsider is defined early by his race alone. The white frontiersmen widely ignore the Native people who live around their settlement and openly distrust Lu based on his race. He knows he won’t be accepted by white men in the territories, so Cookie’s kindness is nearly miraculous. He’s also an idea man, happily dreaming up ways he and Cookie can strike it rich so they can live off the grid on a little farm where the world at large won’t bother them. It’s a surprisingly sweet, small dream.  

Whether you view the film as a tender tale of friendship (and Reichardt does start the film with a William Blake quote on the necessity of friendship) or a metaphor for the impossible odds facing small businesses in the face of corporate conglomerates, First Cow is a beautiful, moving film. Take a trek into the wilds of Oregon to see this lovely film, which is available for under $6 on Amazon now.  

Great Drama * PG-13 * 122 mins.