The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - FIRST COW | The Movie Waffler


first cow review
In 1820 Oregon, two friends come up with a scheme to make biscuits from milk stolen from the region's only cow.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone

first cow poster

You know how hipster startups sometimes like to invent backstories regarding the origins of the company they literally conceived of six months ago? Well imagine if you will a film based on the dubious origins of a Portland, Oregon cupcake franchise. That's a lot like how Kelly Reichardt's story of frontier entrepreneurship, First Cow, plays out.

first cow review

In 1820 Oregon, Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) is the put-upon cook for a bunch of fur-traders. One day while foraging in the woods for anything he might be able to turn into a meal, he stumbles across the shivering form of a naked Chinese man. The stranger introduces himself as King-Lu (Orion Lee) and explains how he had to make a hasty getaway after shooting a Russian trapper in an act of self-defence. Cookie gives King-Lu some food, clothes and shelter for the night before the two go their separate ways.

Later, Cookie and King-Lu bump into one another in a newly prosperous frontier town. The two men bond over a bottle of hooch and King-Lu invites Cookie to stay at his shack. When English toff "Chief Factor" (Toby Jones) arrives in town with the first cow to be introduced to the region, Cookie and King-Lu see a business opportunity. At night they sneak onto the Chief Factor's estate and fill a bucket with milk from the animal. Using this milk, Cookie whips up some tasty biscuits (which I believe are what Americans call scones, though I could be wrong), slathers them in honey and sells them to the hungry traders that frequent the area. Business begins booming, with even the Chief Factor becoming a regular customer ("It tastes like London!" he beams upon biting into the cake"), but how long can they pull off this scam before being rumbled?

first cow review

As a commentary on the roots of American capitalism, First Cow is a rather blunt allegory. Cookie and King-Lu embody the spirit of enterprise that Americans pride themselves on, but of course, like most successful business enterprises, they're making money at someone else's expense. There's a delicious irony to the Chief Factor hiring the men to bake a confection for an upcoming meeting of local bigwigs, completely oblivious to the idea that he's paying them for stealing his own produce. Had Cookie and King-Lu approached him with their idea initially, he no doubt would have refused them and possibly stolen the notion of making biscuits from his cow's milk for himself. It's a sad truth that those who come up with winning ideas are so often dismissed by those who could help them realise their ambitions that they have to turn to underhand methods to achieve their goals.

First Cow boasts the sort of setup that would have made for a cracking Preston Sturges comedy, or even a Laurel and Hardy short. While her films often mine a vein of oily black humour, Reichardt doesn't exactly make giggle a minute comedies, and while the central concept forces a grin, laughs are all too scarce in First Cow's two hour plus running time. The film moves at exactly the pace you would expect from a Reichardt movie set in the 19th century, with over half the movie expired before the premise begins to take shape. You might argue this time is taken to establish the friendship between Cookie and King-Lu, but if this were a western from Anthony Mann, John Ford or Howard Hawks and Magaro and Lee were replaced by Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan, we'd have picked up on their close bond within minutes.

first cow review

Magaro and Lee are likeable in their roles, but Reichardt confines them within a suffocatingly rigid formality. Cookie and King-Lu are a lowbrow comic partnership stuck in a highbrow arthouse movie, as uncomfortable in this setting as ranch hands invited to afternoon tea. I found myself desperate for the pair to break out in a dance number or engage in some good old slapstick, and I can't help but wonder what the Coen brothers might have done with this premise.

First Cow
 is on MUBI UK/ROI now.

2021 movie reviews