by Rob DiCristino
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff) returns to the Pacific Northwest in First Cow, a frontier story of friendship and opportunity in the virgin Oregon Territories. Based on the novel The Half-Life by Jon Raymond and set circa 1820, First Cow begins with a chance meeting between Marylander Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). Cookie has joined a band of fur trappers on their way to the nearest trading post, while King-Lu is on the run from some vengeful Russians. Different though they may be, it’s a shared belief in a better life that bonds them in this uncharted land. When Cookie discovers that a local Englishman (Toby Jones as Chief Factor) owns the only dairy cow in the Territories, the new friends see their chance to seize the American Dream for themselves. They milk the cow in the dead of each night, using their haul to make “oily cakes” that they sell to the locals each day. Their product is so good, however, that it soon attracts the attention of Chief Factor himself.
And that’s important. That’s what gets us through the muck and the mud and the rain and the sludge of First Cow. The English nobles debate the availability of beaver pelts and lament the ever-changing fashions in France, but our boys are focused on the incredible opportunity inherent in a blank page. “History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King-Lu tells Cookie. This is their chance to make it. Rather than chart new courses or scale new monuments, though, the pair make their mark by bringing these transplanted workers a flavor of home: Each oily cake, they say, tastes like their mother’s cooking and smells like the neighborhoods of their youth. It’s a nice comment on the emotional intention behind our consumption. It’s just the milk, of course, but Cookie and King-Lu have carved out a niche in a willing market. It’s a strange land eager to be made familiar. Magaro and Lee shine in these moments when the wheels start moving; Magaro is a delicate touch who works in the spaces between dialogue, while Lee is just the slightest bit more animated, more likely to think out loud.
First Cow is available on VOD platforms on July 10th.