One doesn’t have to see First Cow to know that pastries are a gold mine. For the frontiersmen who travel west in Kelly Reichardt’s excellent First Cow, their riches aren’t found panning for gold. The men, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook with an Oregon fur trapping company, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese entrepreneur on the run from some Russians, strike gold with tasty desserts. Their goldmine is a delicacy they call “oily cakes.” The desserts are like fritters—nice blobs of dough fried in lard. They coat them with honey and cinnamon. Men line up for these little nuggets and shell out silver dollars faster than they do for whiskey and hookers. Even in the rugged frontier, a taste of home is priceless.
The secret ingredient to the oily cakes? Milk.
1820s’ Oregon had yet to develop an infrastructure for milkmen or dépanneurs, so the men pilfer the secret ingredient from the first cow to set hooves in the district. The cow’s owner, a wealthy Brit named Chief Factor (Toby Jones), pays no heed to the bovine’s missing juice. He just likes the oily cakes and pays a premium for them. Ever the daft fellow, he compliments the chefs that the nublet offers a taste of London. The origin of the delicacy’s dairy never crosses his mind. As Cookie and King conspire, rich men like the Chief are oblivious to the fact that others may rob them.
First Cow and Liquid Gold
“Nom, nom,” remark the frontiersmen as the doughy goodies warm their souls. First Cow is a tale for a time in which men fill their bellies with sweets while others go hungry. Each batch of oily cakes is a risk, as is each trip to the cow, as the duo builds a modest pastry empire with dreams of quitting the frontier and investing in hotels. Reichardt finds in the lonely cook and the Chinese immigrant a tale at the roots (and rottenness) of American capitalism.
The secret ingredient to Reichardt’s cinema? Milk.
Reichardt really knows how to milk her material. At a time when movies move faster than ever, Reichardt finds power in stillness. She’s a master of slow cinema and First Cow combines the simplicity of Wendy and Lucy with the strong characterization of Night Moves and the wicked sense of humour of Meek’s Cutoff. But Reichardt moves methodically. The film moves at an unhurried pace to let a viewer get to know Cookie, King, and their plights. It lets us enter their environments and become a part of it by immersing us in its sights, sounds, and tastes. The methodical cadence of First Cow harkens back to a different world. There is something serene, soothing, and revitalising about a film like First Cow. It bides its time and envelopes the viewer in a world that moves at a pace far different than the one in which we live.
Bromance on the Frontier
When Reichardt last frequented the world of westerners and gunslingers in Meek’s Cutoff, she envisioned a country without old men. This time, however, few women grace her screen. Yet this is not a tale of violent gunslingers. Using an ear for the laid-back language of the era and envisioning the west through sparse sets, naturally lighting, and the unfussy parametres of of Academy ratios, Reichardt composes frontier-era America with sobering realism.
It’s refreshing to see a film challenge the rugged masculinity of western heroes as both Magaro and Lee create compelling anti-heroes of quiet, modest strength. The film finds in their plight a parable about the inequality at the basis of the American dream. The film’s unforgettable opening scene see a young woman (Alia Shawkat) stumble upon and excavates two corpses buried and long forgotten. This chilling sight frames the gold rush of the oily cakes as a true American tragedy as struggles between the classes lay at the foundation of the American ethos as a battle between the haves and the have nots envelops the tale.
Before seeing how the men of the opening sequence come to their untimely ends, Reichardt conveys how Cookie and King are true survivalists. Unlike the other men in the trapping companies they eventually flee, they know that making their own way in the world entitles them to nothing. Even from its earliest stages in the settler years, the pioneers of the frontier made their ways without equal footing as men like Cookie and King start the American dream from scratch, plundering riches from the cupboards of the overstocked few. First Cow might the only western about a pastry chef the world will ever see, and if it’s the only one we get, Reichardt delivers a sweetly satisfying standalone canon.
First Cow opens in theatres beginning March 13 at TIFF Lightbox.