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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Kelly Reichhart may be an individual filmmaking talent, but she knows the value of a tried-and-true recipe. First Cow concerns a couple of underdogs who embark on an unlikely business venture. The setting is a “pioneer” settlement in 1820s Oregon, but neither protagonist is exactly the rugged sort. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is a soft-spoken baker, apparently trained in Boston; his new buddy King-Lu is a worldlier immigrant from northern China, prone to musing aloud on possible get-rich-quick schemes. As he explains, America is the land of opportunity, but not for everyone. “It’s the getting started that’s the trouble. You need leverage. Or a crime.” Fate intervenes with the arrival of the literal “first cow” in the territory, the property of local bigwig Chief Factor.
Soon Cookie is sneaking out at night to milk the cow, Lu keeping watch from a nearby tree. This supplies the secret ingredient to the “oily cakes” which Cookie subsequently prepares, and which he and Lu peddle to hard bitten locals who melt at the first mouthful. It’s a wonderfully neat concept, and Reichhart, often labelled a minimalist, has never been more assured as a storyteller. The narrative motor of First Cow takes some time to warm up, but eventually generates considerable suspense: as in all stories where the heroes succeed too quickly, we know the good times can’t last. In the meantime, the measured pace leaves room for an abundance of period detail. This is a very physical movie, where the characters always seem to be doing something with their hands: sharpening a knife, threading a needle, toying with a puzzle. Sounds are no less critical, especially in the night scenes: milk sloshing into a bucket, or the creak of a tree branch about to crack.
As a fable, First Cow has a degree of 21st-century preachiness. Cookie and Lu are basically innocents, doomed by the nature of the system. Yet mystery lingers at the film’s centre: much could be said about the triangle of the two men and the cow, and the intimate ritual that brings them together under cover of dark.