Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shephard, Gary Farmer and Lily Gladstone
4.00 out of 5.00
Food is emotional. For Native American people, its value is one associated with love, well-being and companionship. Food is history – whether from the assortment of ingredients that example the development of societies throughout the world, to the way that good food can spark mighty memories that take the person back in time to feelings and emotions both pleasurable and hurtful. Food is personal. For the creator, food is an artistic expression of their individuality but also their relationship with the emotions that connect them to everyone that eats their offerings.
“First Cow,” director Kelly Reichardt’s newest fable set in mid-19th-century Oregon Territory, composes all these unique emotions connected with food and the relationships humans have with it; emotions defining how the food was viewed, consumed and abused by humanity. Amidst all these emotions is a beautiful friendship between two unlikely men who hatch a plan to get beyond their poverty by stealing milk from the lone cow in the area to make “oily cakes” (basically a doughnut) to bring a small taste of joy to the rugged and dire situation during this time. Kelly Reichardt’s allegory is a mix of sweet friendship challenged by the overwhelming sense of bad omens on the horizon.
Cookie (John Magaro) is the cook and chief forager for a group of trappers who are in the final days of their venture into the woods. Their animosity for one another is felt with every move and word uttered. While Cookie is out searching for food, he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee) hiding completely naked in a nearby bush. King-Lu is trying to evade murderous circumstances involving a group of Russians. Cookie helps hide King-Lu with his party but on their voyage back to Fort Tillicum, King-Lu leaves. It doesn’t take long for the two men to find one another again. They bond through circumstance and create a business partnership utilizing Cookie’s culinary skillset and King-Lu’s salesmanship.
Reichardt crafts minimalistic films centered around specific emotional relationships; whether with humans, animals, nature or other unique products of emotional connection, Reichardt has an undeniable ability to make the most simplistic of stories feel overwhelmingly complex.
“First Cow” composes this same quality. While focused on the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, Reichardt charts a relationship founded on desperation which soon moves to the camaraderie and then progresses simply to loving friendship. It’s a beautifully structured composition that is assisted by two actors, Magaro and Lee, who provide nuanced, relaxed and natural performances.
Interesting still is that “First Cow” composes an even more complex relationship with the lone female animal in this film. The cow, new to the region at this time, provides a political, historical and poetic relationship and sensibility to the film. The political economics of supply and demand found with Cookie and King-Lu’s “oily cake” company, the historical memory found with the bountiful bovine living at the home of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who composes a picture of wealth from a foreign land but also the powerful memories associated with food primarily founded by the animal. As one man explains, the “oily cakes” taste like something his mother used to make. There is also something wholly poetic between the connections between the cow and the humans using her; a sense of comfort during complicated times, of peace in a place so ravaged by greed, of life during a time when death seems imminent.
“First Cow” may serve as the perfect example of the kind of art director Reichardt creates; emotional, historical and personal stories about relationships. It may also be looked upon as one of the director’s finest works when her stunning career is completed.