First Cow

DRAMA; 2hr 2min

STARRING: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones

Dream catchers: from left, Lee and Magaro

The sad end met by First Cow ’s leading men is apparent in its opening minutes when a present-time woman (Alia Shawkat) uncovers two skeletons side-by-side in a shallow grave. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy ) works from her and Jonathan Raymond’s screenplay of his 2004 novel The Half Life to dip back in time to show how they came to be there.


Oregon in the 1820s is wild and unformed, its densely forested land barely scratched by opportunists who dream big and mostly live like beggars. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu (Magaro and Lee, finely meshed) are two of them, drifters who unite in a crisis and pal up later through their shared ambitions for better things. Cookie would like to open a hotel or a bakery, having trained as a baker in Boston (where, frankly, he should’ve stayed). Failing that, hotels and bakeries being luxuries that the frills-deprived frontier hasn’t yet stretched to, he opts for baking lumpy-looking “oily cakes” using milk stolen by night, with King-Lu as lookout, from a rich settler’s precious dairy cow.


This couldn’t be more foolhardy. Rich men everywhere have always held tight to what they have and never more than when other men are itching to get their hands on it. But hey, desperate times, and when Cookie and King-Lu take their biscuits to market, a scruffy clientele snaps them up. Their fool’s paradise becomes paradise lost, as it was always earmarked to do, when the cow’s affected owner (Jones) shows up in a wildly frontier-inappropriate top hat and takes a shine to Cookie’s sweet treats.


Granted, Cookie and King-Lu are helping themselves to his milk. But how not to barrack for their sustaining dream? “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from,” Cookie responds when King-Lu questions their long-term chances. In this he is both right and wrong, but one truth that does hold steady is that wealth will always crush poverty. Like a rowboat on a sunlit river, Reichardt’s quiet cadence is a scenic illusion. Icy currents lie in wait.