First Cow

Dept. Of Friendship and Frontiers


One of the things we most often lament here at Goggler is the lack of opportunity to watch indie films in Malaysia (legally). Even those that make it “big” don’t always make it to our shores (or streaming services). So it was with great excitement I greeted the news that MUBI, who have been making a great many Malaysian movies available online, would be bringing Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow to their service.

A meditative drama set in the “Old West,” from its opening minutes First Cow banishes any idea of cowboys, gunslingers, or spaghetti Westerns. The Oregon Territory of First Cow is populated by grimy trappers hauling beaver pelts under a almost permanently overcast sky, where most lodgings are less actual cabins and more stacked lumber.

The lack of obvious western tropes, however, doesn’t signal a lack of danger. The Oregon of First Cow is a land populated by filthy, desperate men; where an empty belly can be the difference between an argument and violence. It’s a surprise then, when Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), the beleaguered cook for a hungry trapping expedition, offers aid to a naked man he happens across, while out foraging for mushrooms one night. 

Milk of Human Kindness?

It’s a kindness later repaid by the same man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), when the two meet again under much better circumstances, starting a friendship that strives to grow amongst the harsh life around it. In between surviving, the two happen into a plan that might help them do more than just survive and to actually thrive. A plan that hinges on bringing a little sweetness to the hard lives of the men of Oregon Country, but one that necessitates the involvement of the newly arrived, and only, cow in the territory. The first cow in all of Oregon, which just happens to be owned by the local Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a man of high standing, but with plenty of dangerous men at his disposal.

I don’t know what I expected from First Cow, having thankfully remained unspoiled in the years since it’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019. I should have been more wary of my own high, if vague, expectations.

While it’s a well made and interesting film, unfortunately I just didn’t find myself loving it as much as many others have. Which is, by no means, a failing of the film.

The Subtly Dynamic Duo

Through John Magaro and Orion Lee, Kelly Reichardt paints a beautiful picture of a different kind of friendship. Magaro is always memorable, in roles from Charlie Geller in The Big Short, to Private First Class Lyle “Are you sure he wasn’t in Band of Brothers?” Tibbet in Overlord. He is no less memorable here in a far more subdued, quieter role, telling you everything you need to know about him through small moments. Righting an upturned lizard and sending it on it’s way or, when asked to “make himself easy,” sets himself to cleaning house a little.

For most of the film I wasn’t too sure if Orion Lee’s King-Lu was being totally up front with “Cookie.” Whether he had a genuine feeling for the other man, or was working an angle, either due to the circumstances of his introduction, or the environment of ever present threat that Reichardt crafts. It’s an ambiguity that actor and director mine perfectly until the truth is eventually revealed.

Perhaps that setting is the film’s greatest achievement. In evoking a feeling of a world on the edge of something great. As King-Lu says: “History isn’t here yet, it’s coming, but we got early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms.” This land is here for the taking, but only if you have the stomach (and capital) to take it. 

Men of Action

Arrayed against the two is everyone else chasing their own similar dreams. Toby Jones’s Chief Factor epitomizing upper class nitwittery, backed up by the muscle of Ewan Bremner (Trainspotting, Wonder Woman) Frontier Scotsman. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the late Rene Auberjonois turn up in one of his final acting roles.

The modern framing device that begins the story, starring Alia Shawkat hints at one possible outcome for King-Lu and Cookie, although it could relate to others, but First Cow is very much a film about the journey rather than the destination.

And isn’t that one of the purposes of independent/arthouse cinema? Not to go toe-to-toe with blockbusters, but to offer something different, even if it isn’t to all tastes. On that account, First Cow more than succeeds. Telling its own story, itself only a small fragment of screenwriter Jonathan Raymond’s book The Half-Life. I may not have loved it as much as I’d hoped, but it’s well worth checking out nonetheless. If only to show that there is an appetite here for more indie films like this one.

First Cow is now available to stream on MUBI.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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