New to Blu-Ray and DVD this month is “First Cow,” an offbeat look at a friendship forged in the Oregon territory of the 1800’s. It’s a frontier fable as unpredictable as its wilderness environment and told with an entertainingly easy charm.
John Magaro (“The Big Short”) stars as Cookie, nicknamed for his culinary skills to a small group of trappers in the Pacific Northwest. Cookie isn’t popular with the trappers for his inability to produce a high volume of food; the muddy hills limit Cookie to foraging for mushrooms. On one such foraging trip, Cookie runs into a naked Chinese man named King-Lu (Orion Lee), on the run from Russians hunting him for his former partner’s thievery. Cookie helps hide King-Lu and the two part ways when the trappers reach a fort marketplace to sell their pelts.
At the fort, the marketplace thrives: different ethnic groups assemble to sell their wares. One such rare commodity noticed by Cookie is a cow sold to fort resident and wealthy Englishman Chief Factor (Toby Jones). When the pelts are sold, Cookie is paid and left behind by the other trappers. Finding himself alone, Cookie again runs into King-Lu who offers to return Cookie’s kindness by sharing a whisky bottle with him in a nearby shack King-Lu has acquired.
The two talk and share their dreams of the future. While King-Lu dreams of a farm, Cookie wants to run a hotel and bakery. Walking near the shack, Cookie sees the cow in the back of Chief Factor’s residence. The close proximity of the cow and Cookie extolling the virtues of baking with real milk gives King-Lu an idea. During the night, the two sneak over to the Chief’s house: Cookie milks the cow; King-Lu serves as lookout. After successfully stealing milk, Cookie bakes cakes that King-Lu sees as a financial opportunity.
Selling the cakes at market proves popular and lucrative. Cookie and King-Lu begin to build a nest egg to make the down payment on their dreams when the bravado over the baked goods reaches the ears of Chief Factor, who commissions Cookie to bake a special cake for a visiting colleague. The fact that Cookie’s baking is dependent on stealing the Chief’s milk may be the only foible in King-Lu’s scheme but, in this frontier, the best-laid plans are often flimsy and fragile.
Director Kelly Reichart (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) has crafted a campfire story with “First Cow,” an atmospheric anecdote of folklore friendship. With its rustic setting and melting pot community, it reminded me a lot of a Robert Altman movie- particularly “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for its similar scenery, acoustic guitar musical score (by William Tyler), and Altman-regular Rene Auberjonois appearing in a cameo role. There’s even a subtle quirkiness to “Cow” that feels like a Coen Brothers influence. Both Magaro and Lee generate a natural and believable bond as Cookie and King-Lu, founding a partnership with little more than a belief in extracting the best out of the barrenness that surrounds them.
While some might find the pacing slow, I was swept up in the fairy-tale. “First Cow” gave me what few movies do, a naturalistic sense of setting and sentiment that was as sweet as the film’s frothily-filched prize.