The minimalist poetic glory that is First Cow (A24) combines a sharp examination of capitalism and entrepreneurship with a sympathetic look at outsiders.
The drama combines history that you may not have known about with insights that remain unchanged since the 19th Century.
Foremost among these is the truth, universally acknowledged, that everyone loves a good doughnut.
The confections here are called “oily cakes,” and they make all the pioneers who bite into them think of being back home, no matter where their former home might have been.
The historical details are sound, and there are no elements precluding viewing by older adolescents.
The film, however, is reflective, meaning, slow. In fact, it might be said to unfold at mule-drawn canal-boat speed. The journey is meant to be savoured.
Director Kelly Reichardt, a specialist in this type of material, co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, working from Raymond’s 2012 novel The Half-Life.
The specific setting is Oregon’s Umpqua River region, woodsy and wild, where the principal work consists of beaver-trapping that utilises exploited Native American labour.
Maryland-born Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) never quite fits in with his group of thuggish trappers and leaves his awful job as their camp cook at his first opportunity.
He runs across King Lu (Orion Lee), who himself is on the run from a group of Russians.
They’re initially together simply for survival. But King has ambitions to capitalise on Cookie’s culinary talent.
“This is all still new,” he observes. “Doesn’t seem new to me. Seems old,” Cookie replies.
“Everything’s old if you look at it that way. History hasn’t come here yet. This time, maybe we can be ready for it. We can take it on its own terms.”
Opportunity arrives on a raft in the form of the territory’s first cow, owned by an imperious British fur trader who calls himself Chief Factor (Toby Jones).
He lives in plastered, perfumed luxury while all his neighbours eke out their existences in crude shacks.
Cookie has long been disgusted with the only carbohydrates available – the tasteless mixture of flour and water known as hardtack. With milk, he can make fluffy cakes to sell.
So the two attempt to build their fortune with clandestine nighttime milking. For a long time, Chief Factor doesn’t detect this, thinking his cow is just a poor producer.
Discussions of morality – building an enterprise using the asset of a callous rich man – form the heart of the film’s dialogue.
Cookie shrugs, “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from.”
“We have to take what we can when the taking is good,” King concludes.
Their honeyed and spiced cakes, buoyed by King’s sales pitch claiming they contain an “ancient Chinese secret,” are such an immediate success that even Chief Factor enjoys them.
Reichardt doesn’t so much provide a conclusion as a meditation on the predatory nature of capitalism.
This may only constitute a tiny episode in the long story of how the West was supposedly won. But it’s an appealing look into the plight of the marginalised toiling in the harshest of environments.
The film contains mature themes and fleeting crude language. A-III – adults. Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.