In the Oregon Territory circa 1820, survival itself is a constant effort. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a scavenger and chef for a group of fur trappers, discovers this truth while he is wandering in the remote woods searching for food for his increasingly disgruntled companions. Instead, he finds a nude Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee) hiding in the woods, on the run from some pursuers who mean him harm. The two outsiders quickly form a bond and begin living together on a small homestead outside of what qualifies for a town in this part of the world. The pair is industrious, constantly foraging and improving their home, but it is clear that they are barely scraping by despite their constant effort.
After learning that a wealthy land-owner is finally bringing the very first dairy cow into the Territory, Cookie stumbles across the animal tied to a tree in a clearing not far from its owner’s house. While telling King about it, he muses out loud about the things he could bake if he had just a little bit of milk. Being the more ambitious of the two, King concocts a plan to steal a small amount of milk from the cow each night, which they will use to make biscuits to sell to weary hunters and travelers starved for luxury. Their plan is a huge success, but King constantly fears that someone will piece together that there is only one possible source of the milk they are using. There is also the ever-present threat that more cows will be brought to the Territory, effectively poaching their cornered market. Their window of opportunity is bound to close… the only question is how and with what consequences?
The first thing that stands out immediately about this film is its visual splendor. The set pieces and costumes are all very well-conceived, easily meeting the high standard that currently exists for dramatic period pieces. The beautiful Oregon wilderness is on full display, often contrasted against the straight lines and right angles of human architecture in deftly planned-out shots. It is clear how proud the cinematographer (Chris Blauvelt) is of some of these frames by how long they choose to show them to you, which segways nicely into the second instantly noticeable thing about this film: the pacing is downright glacial. In the first third of the movie, there are scenes that make the viewer wonder if the shot isn’t cutting because the director (Kelly Reichard) has fallen asleep or taken ill or something.
I will say that, once the plot and themes become evident, I began to think that the filmmaker chose this pacing to show us how relentlessly these people toiled in these conditions simply to have some type of shelter over their heads and enough food to avoid starvation. It really drives home the stark reality of these two people languishing outside the bounds of modern capitalism and striving to break in. That being said, the beginning of the movie is still inexcusably slow.
The real reason to see this movie is the thoughtful symbolism about capitalism and class status. The protagonists, who are living at subsistence level, are able to greatly augment their fortunes and create dreams and plans for their future prospects after simply gaining access to a little bit of milk from a cow that a wealthy person owns (and does not even value enough to protect). Cookie and King only hope to achieve something resembling comfort, but their climb towards it will put their very lives at risk.
It is difficult to watch this movie without seeing clear parallels to the 2019 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Parasite. Even though these movies were made at the same time, in different countries, and set in very different times and places, the underlying theme of war between and among different economic classes is clearly identifiable in each. This speaks to the universal nature of the issues at hand.
The film’s acting performances are understated, but strong enough. Orion Lee is a name I will be keeping an eye on going forward. However, as the film draws to a close, the plot and pacing become convoluted again and tie up with an ending that is abrupt and leaves the viewer with many questions, none of them the interesting kind. These issues result in a movie that is much more difficult to watch than it needs to be.
First Cow is beautiful period drama with elegant symbolism and quietly good acting that is bogged down by awkward plot development and inexplicable pacing. A must-see for fans of Parasite, but less appealing to general audiences.
About First Cow
Synopsis: A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois
Runtime: 2 Hours, 1 Minute