John Magaro, Orion Lee, Dylan Smith, Toby Jones
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A mellow, leisurely and gentle curiosity…
First Cow sometimes has so little movement that it almost takes the motion out of motion picture. It’s soporific, occasionally excruciatingly so, and sometimes as quiet and underlit as a graveyard at night. But if that makes it sound like a dud, the strange thing is that it definitely isn’t. This is one of those films that leaves a subtle aftertaste which vindicates everything that preceded it.
The locale is rural Oregon in the early nineteenth century. ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro) is a skilled chef working for a bunch of fur trappers whose personalities are as unpleasant as their line of work. He comes across King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run from some Russians who are intent on murdering him. The two men wander off to seek their fortunes together, and the evolution of their slow-burning friendship is at the heart of the story.
What follows is… well, superficially not a lot, because the quality here is all in the treatment, the lyricism, the atmosphere and the painterly tableaux. Cookie and King Lu decide that their financial prospects hinge on selling an irresistibly delicious type of oily cake or biscuit, for which Cookie knows the secret recipe. That recipe’s ingredients include milk, and to obtain it they need to milk the only cow in the region. The animal belongs to an Englishman with the odd title of The Chief Factor (Toby Jones). He’s a very nasty piece work, with a nonchalantly ‘civilised’ way of speaking which never varies whether he’s discussing the vagaries of fashion and haute cuisine or the supposed desirability of flogging and capital punishment. So, stealing from him is decidedly risky.
A mellow, leisurely and gentle curiosity, tinged with darkness, which never glosses over or romanticises the rough lives of its protagonists.