CINEMA: Milk Cow Blues


FIRST COW (directed Kelly Reichardt, 122 minutes, USA, 2020)

BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Directed by Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Night Moves), First Cow is the story of a cook named Cookie (John Magaro) and a migrant Chinese laborer named King Lu (Orion Lee) set in the newly settled Oregon Territory circa 1820. After a chance meeting one night, when Cookie comes across King naked and on the run in the forest and Cookie provides the stranger with both clothes and provisions Good Samaritan-style, they meet again some months later in a small town where they begin an Odd Couple-esque domestic partnership.

When the titular first cow arrives in town, Cookie and King conspire to make a fortune stealing its milk and selling milk-infused cakes to the weary travelers that come through town on their way to the west. But the manure hits the fan when Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the wealthy landowner who owns the cow notices something vaguely familiar about these purloined milk-infused cakes and invites them to his home for a private meal.

First Cow was produced by A24 and the studio originally wanted to wait out the Covid-19 epidemic so audiences could fully appreciate cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s (Emma., The Bling Ring) breathtakingly beautiful rendering of the rustic splendor of the American Frontier on the big screen. But given that there’s no end to the pandemic in sight, they’ve surrendered to the streaming services, and I’m glad they did. First Cow is like a warm plate of comfort food in these troubled times. The real charm of the film is the platonic friendship between these two men — one an immigrant and the other a settler — and, well, a cow. It’s something you just don’t really see in movies very often.

Given A24’s reputation for more transgressive fare, I kept waiting for that twist to pull the sincerity rug out from under us. Instead the film content to be a simple snapshot of frontier life that finds its joy in conversations and the simpler problems of the frontier cook, like where to find fresh honey and milk. In its own charming way, First Cow is a perfect film, told through cinematic language and narrative that left me feeling somehow more hopeful about the troubled world we live in.