Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shephard
Westerns have been defined by the sheriff who walks into the saloon and takes out the big bad guys walking into their town. Plenty of gunslinging and riding horses in a matter to show how much manliness they possess. Nourishment means eating slightly warm beans and spitting very loudly into a bucket. First Cow, on the other hand, posits what the genre would look like if it all got centered in a touching tale of friendship and the selling of baked goods.
The western frontier made many promises of the riches available to individuals willing to get out there and take it. This dream brought out Otis Figowitz (John Magaro) to serve as a cook for a group of men going out for gold. Following the end of their business relationship, Otis must now fend for himself and meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), as they try to figure out what their future holds. As they discover a singular cow exists in the area, they decide to use its milk to sell some delicious oily cakes in order to set themselves up to gain success.
Opening with the quote essentially stating friendship serves as a home for humanity, First Cow delivers on this promise in showing such a touching relationship between two men and how they try to find success. Their first interaction occurs through happenstance where Otis finds King-Lu with minimal clothing and no resources for survival. Any cynicism one might think this story may employ goes right out the window as Otis clothes him and allows King-Lu to hide out with him until he’s done with his current crew. Meeting together in a local colony, their relationship only continues to blossom in a truly heartfelt manner.
The frontier, Oregon specifically, as established in this film looks mostly like what reality displayed as it does not focus solely on a group of white men traversing the area. Instead, it has a variety of people of different backgrounds and national origins converging following the same dream. People from England and China made their way over. Indigenous people have their claim in the area and play a major part of the story. It brings authenticity to the story and takes the audience back to a different time where so many things currently taken for granted did not exist. One major aspect was the use of dairy in this area.
As referenced in the title, the cow becomes integral for historic purposes in the area but also the means to make money for both Otis and King-Lu. This particular cow is the first one in Oregon and was brought over by a powerful man, Chief Factor (Toby Jones). He wanted to bring over a male and a female cow along with a calf. With the male and calf dying on the voyage over, only one cow remains. The purpose comes from the milk the cow produces and what it adds to the very bland foods everyone is making. He definitely needs his cream to put into his tea. Otis has served as a cook in bakeries and the crew who took him out to the Oregon area. Getting some of the milk allows for him to make some tasty treats, which King-Lu figures could make them a nice profit and he was certainly right. Thus the film becomes a process of Otis secretly milking the cow and using it to make the oily cakes they sell to the people of the colony, which become a smashing success by all measures.
Plotwise the film can be described as such but the sweetness emanating from it shows the specialness of this feature. When Otis milks the cow, he always talks to it in a meaningful manner where the cow certainly does not comprehend but it demonstrates Otis showing a level of compassion not typically seen in Westerns. He even states how he feels bad learning about the death of her calf. It all flows into establishing Otis as a character and how he goes against all sorts of archetypes one would find within this genre.
Instead of focusing on the violence and crude nature of this environment, First Cow takes on the idea of masculinity in this world. It centers on two men baking goods in order to survive and they genuinely enjoy what it produces for them. Never has a dessert looks so appetizing in the way they fry it up, drip some honey and then add cinnamon. Makes perfect sense for why it would sell like hotcakes, literally. Additionally, different conversations center on fashion with Chief Factor speaking with an individual who came back from overseas and asks about the fashion trends in London and Paris seeing as Beaver fur serves as a major export for the area. It serves as the equivalent of John Wayne talking about what kind of corsets people in Paris are wearing for this particular season. This film presents a different type of people that existed in this area that did not care for robbing banks or taking out other gunslingers.
Kelly Reichardt would not be a director I would describe as accessible as she has her own methods of making films that make them thoroughly unique. Her style usually lies in letting things marinate for extended times, which can hamper the pacing but describe exactly the type of experience she wants to provide through her storytelling. She wonderfully captures the love Otis and King-Lu have for each other but also how they care for the cow. By the way, the cow is also completely adorable. In what may be her most accessible film, she manages to create a fruitful viewing experience in First Cow because of the pure humanity of these characters and how these two friends will not abandon each other even if the going gets tough.
Watching First Cow may leave you with the craving to get a pastry or a nice doughnut, but it will also show the power of friendship and how it can even exist in a time where allegiances get made purely through survival and convenience. Narratively, it works wonderfully to tell this touching story as well as thematically with the type of characters inhabiting a genre mostly known for violence and proving their masculinity.