Got Milk? This gem from Kelly Reichardt does.
I was supposed to review “First Cow” last March, but because of the Corona virus shutting down movie theaters, my viewing had to be put on the back burner. However, recently, A24 was considerate enough to re-release it online, and I was lucky enough to finally see it.
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (in her first feature since “Certain Women”) has made a small western so gorgeous, I was reminded of “The Grey Fox” with the late Richard Fransworth. The Oregon scenery (because this is where the story by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond adapting his own novel “The Half Life” takes place) matches the mood and quiet tone of the movie, the acting is sublime, and its premise of stealing milk for better opportunities keeps you glued.
Told in the 19th century, we meet a young cook by the name of Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), who travels with fur travelers in the Oregon Territory. He’s from Maryland, he lost his parents at a very young age, and he has been moving around the country for years.
He also begins to befriend a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee), who is being pursued by Russians for killing one of their men. These two have their own opportunity goals. Cookie plans to open up a hotel for travelers, while King Lu wants to own a farm.
Then, one night when Cookie steals some milk from a landowner’s prized cow, he makes some mighty good biscuits (oily cakes before we called them “donuts”), which gives King Lu an idea of selling them at the local marketplace. “Secret Chinese Ingredient,” of course. Ultimately, their treats become financially successful with not just the locals but also a wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones), who invites the two businessman into his abode. Eventually, they both realize their milk harvesting could put them at risk.
The performances from the leads are terrific. Magaro delivers sentimental value to his character, and this is my favorite performance from him since the under-appreciated “Not Fade Away.” Never hearing of Orion Lee before, I was exceedingly impressed with how well he portrays a human who expects more out of life, and wants to achieve his goals. And Jones provides charms and dignity when he enjoys the Oily Cakes, and when he finds out the secret ingredient.
The cast also features Ewan Bremner as a Scottish fur trapper, the late Rene Auberjonois in one of his final roles as an old timer, and Alia Shawkat appears in the opening scene as a modern woman who comes across a dead body in the dirt.
“First Cow” has enough calcium to keep the story and complexity alive, and it allows delves into the friendship of the main characters. They both want to make it big in America, and they don’t turn against one another, as we’ve seen before, whether it’s obligatory or not. They’re both people, and we really care about them. Reichardt guides Magaro and Lee on the right path as them, and she also has made an exceptional movie.
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