Synopsis: Two men in early 1800’s Oregon Territory try to make some cash with a cow.
A movie featuring a cow? I’m there! Cattle are remarkable members of the bovine family. Did you know that these fascinating ungulates have a four-chambered stomach? Perhaps such a gut would help me to better digest the ruffage-y foods of my vegan diet. Then again, I don’t want to get involved in cud chewing.
According to studies, these sociable animals can recognize familiar and unfamiliar individuals of their own breed based on 2-dimensional images. I’m not sure how they communicated with the researchers…one moo for recognition, silence otherwise? Focus on like individuals is important because they need friends to fend off predators or to dominate the floor at any barn dance.
First Cow involves some humans too. And we meet them before we are introduced to the cow, whom I assume will be the heroine of the story. We see Cookie (John Magaro) in verdant Oregon forest, foraging for mushrooms. Watch out Cookie; mushrooms can be poisonous. (I barely trust the ones at the store.) We can tell that Cookie is poor because he wears ragged clothes. Turns out he’s the cook for a group of beaver trappers and hunters. They snarl at him because he can’t conjure up flour, sugar or whiskey in the middle of the wilderness. Cookie keeps his head down, picking berries (watch out for bears!) and clumsily fishing. We quickly see that Cookie is tenderhearted. Cookie rights a salamander who has flipped onto their back and offers a naked man food. Wait, what? Yes, it was a weird scene. Cookie encounters a naked man hiding in the woods. He says his name is King Lu (Orion Lee) and that he is escaping some Russian hunters who threatened him. Cookie goes back to camp, grabs a blanket for him, gives him food and never expects to see him again.
After a few days, Cookie and his group arrive at a riverside trading post where he receives his pay. He meanders about, checking out the food wares of vendors outside the post. He’s amazed to run into the man he helped. King Lu says he has a little abode nearby and he’d like to repay Cookie’s help by offering him food and drink at his place.
Cookie sweeps out King Lu’s little garden shed-esque home while dinner is prepared. They fall into easy conversation about their lives and plans. Soft-spoken Cookie shares that he is from back East. Orphaned as a youth, he apprenticed at a bakery in Boston before working his way out West. I feel like Cookie would’ve had more job opportunities in Boston, but he didn’t ask me. King Lu tells Cookie that after he left China, he worked all around the world. He keeps hustling, trying to save money for an enterprise, but the deck seems stacked against him. They both discuss how they could set up a small inn for travelers or open a bakery. If only they had capital, says King Lu. Yes, we’d need leverage, agrees Cookie. This is just the sort of thing Marx will expound on a little later in the century in Das Kapital. I wish I could’ve told them that they were on to something!
Director Kelly Reichardt works from writer Jonathan Raymond’s script, based on his book The Half-Life. First Cow is certainly a more intriguing title for a movie. I expected it to be a story about a couple of dreamers who get into some antics with a cow. And I was really hopeful when we see a beautiful brown Jersey cow, peacefully chewing her cud as she is floated down the river on a raft. Her handlers tie-up at a dock and usher her onto shore. Cookie & King Lu learn that the cow has been purchased by local bigwig Chief Factor (Toby Jones) so that he can have cream with his hot bevvies. He had also bought a steer and the cow’s calf. But they didn’t survive the journey. This made me sad because cattle suffer psychological distress when isolated and cows are very attached to their calves, frequently nursing, nuzzling and grooming them. But I guess MR VIP can’t settle for some soymilk or oatmilk. He has a Native wife and you can tell that she and her family know he is a buffoon.
Cookie and King Lu, who now live together, come up with an idea. They figure that they could make some really delicious pastries with milk. After mulling over the risk, they decide to make their way over to the rich man’s homestead and get a pail full of milk from the cow. She’s tied up outside. At night. In the frontier. No, movie makers, I don’t think so. A mountain lion or other large predator would make short work of her. Although I do believe that her owner wouldn’t know how to care for her. At one point he apostolizes to guests about how there are so many beaver that it would be impossible to kill them off.
The two friends become business partners when they are able to repeatedly purloin milk in the dead of the night for their batter recipe. Cookie doesn’t reimburse the cow’s owner, but he is grateful to the cow, whom he whispers to and pats. Soon the men are cooking up oily cakes that sell like, yes, hot cakes outside the trading post.
I don’t know how the filmmakers manage this, but they seem to stretch out time to pass sooo slowly. The movie clocks in at two hours, but the story could’ve been told in forty five minutes. And I’m afraid that we have a bit of a bait and switch. The film takes its time making observations about the unfairness of capitalism (agreed, btw) and the necessity of friendship in a harsh world. But I thought the movie would have more than five minutes of the titular cow. No gentle humor wherein she takes agency, no long shots of those big brown, kindly eyes.
And instead of Terrence Malick-esque visual devotionals of Oregon’s magnificent trees, glades and wildlife, the camera manages to make the countryside look dull as dishwater. We also spend plenty of time outside the trading post that is so depressing looking that even penal colonists would demand to get back on the boat. And then they wouldn’t have to listen to Cookie and King Lu have interminable conversations about how to get ahead. We get it! These two poor guys don’t have a chance. Their dreams will be crushed. Now get back to the cow!
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: A meditation on capitalism, exploitation and friendship that is really slow going.
Humor Highlight: Toby Jones as Chief Factor (a wealthy English agent for Oregon goods), whose cluelessness & pomposity add some levity.