'First Cow' milks emotions with a thoughtful meditation on friendship
This slow-moving movie tells a beautiful story of friendship and the hearty determination of 19th-century pioneers who gave birth to the 'American dream'
These days Portland, Oregon, is the butt of plenty of jokes about hipster craft brewers and organic farmers. Once, though, the Pacific Northwest was hard, muddy, fur-trapping country populated by eccentric men looking for their slice of the American dream in the region's beaver-rich forests and gold-bearing rivers.
Minimalist Indie auteur Kelly Reichardt's complex, layered, gently realised small tale of the touching bromance between two awkward dreamers begins in the present with the grisly discovery by a dog walker of two skeletons lying side by side, hands clasped together, before the film drops us into their back story in the frontier world of 19th-century Oregon.
We're introduced to the mild-mannered but beleaguered and somewhat bedraggled figure of Otis Figowitz (John Magaro) - nicknamed "Cookie" - who's doing his bumbling best as the appointed provider of sustenance to a group of ragged and bad-tempered beaver furriers, who have taken a keen dislike to him.
WATCH | The trailer for 'First Cow'
While foraging for mushrooms in the forest, Cookie stumbles upon the naked, shivering figure of King-Lu (Orion Lee) - a fugitive wanted for the self-defence killing of a Russian baddie. Cookie quietly sneaks King-Lu into his tent but he slips away the next morning, supposedly never to be seen again.
After finishing his depressing term as an inept cook, Figowitz finds himself in the bleak and muddy saloon of a trading fort where he and Lu are reunited. The two outsiders slip easily into a comfortable domestic co-habitation of Lu's humble but cozy shack in the nearby woods.
Like many of their fellow frontier hopefuls, this odd couple have dreams of success and riches. Their dreams aren't based on the profits of beaver skins or the discovery of gold but, rather endearingly, on Cookie's passion for the creation of baked goods. The problem is that in order to bake the cakes, scones and biscuits that are needed to build their baking empire, they need milk, and in the frontier world, milk is in very short supply as the vast herds of cows and their accompanying cowboys of American Western lore haven't yet made it to the Pacific Northwest.
But there is one lone heifer around - the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), an affected English gentleman beaver baron who's transported her at great cost so that he can have his beloved spot of milk in his tea. She'd had a mate but the journey had been too arduous for him and he hadn't survived. Cookie and Lu sneak off in the night to help themselves to some of her lactose gold and Cookie offers the cow condolences for her loss.
The pair use the purloined milk and Cookie's baking skills to satisfy the sweet tooth of the hungry frontiersmen at the fort. They soon fight to get their hands on the "oily cakes" he produces and which begin to earn them a pretty penny. Even Chief Factor arrives to taste one of these fabled confections and pronounces them delicious treats that "taste of London," before hiring the bakers to come and cater a tea party for him.
Of course, this may be a fable of the early days of American capitalism but it's still capitalism and under the rules of that system, stealing must be punished - the question is, will Factor finally figure out that the cakes he's so enamored with require a key ingredient that comes from his own cow?
Reichardt allows the events of her small, intriguing tale to unfold with a deliberately slow pace that places a beautiful tapestry of images, rich with the rhythms and distractions of ordinary life, before the stoic gaze of her predominantly still camera. The languidly unfolding naturalism of the film and its focus on the faces of its frontier characters are balanced by the honest performances of the cast.
Reichardt slowly and assuredly creates a thoughtful meditation on friendship and the aspirational dreams that are the building blocks of the foundational American bootstraps myth. This is reflected in the eyes of the blissfully unaware bovine caught in the middle of it all.
We know that Cookie and Lu are doomed but we're so wrapped up in their relationship and entrepreneurial ingenuity that we can't help loving them, rooting for them and hoping that they're not going to end up two centuries later as anonymous skeletons discovered by a dog-walking Portlander.
• 'First Cow' (PG-13) is now showing on Mubi.com