“First Cow” is a droll and scenic parable, a period piece about immigrants and American “enterprise” in the Old (Pacific North) West.
A soft-spoken cast given to underplaying, a muddy, overcast setting in the beaver-trapping era on The Frontier and reveries about the simple pleasures of home, dearly bought in a rough and tumble world of men make this quiet, almost melancholy movie one to be savored.
John Magaro is “Cookie” Figowitz, a Jewish baker ill-suited to traveling West with a fur trapping party. But that’s the hand life has dealt him, sending him to seek his fortune at the tale end of the beaver-trapping era, at the beginnings of the various western silver (and later gold) rushes, circa 1830.
He’s resented by the trappers, struggling to fill their larder as they trek on foot toward a distant fort/settlement. He gets distracted hunting for mushrooms. Delicacy or not, mushrooms are not “what’s for dinner.”
That’s how he stumbles into an under-clothed but well-spoken man on food (Orion Lee).
“You speak purty good English, fur an Injun,” he says, with little hint that this drawled line has turned up in 670 Westerns before it.
“Not Indian. Chinese.”
Cookie helps “King Lu” out of his predicament. Later, in the co-occupied (by Brits and Americans) Oregon Territory, they renew their acquaintance.
Lu is a fellow with lots of plans, dreams, business pitches. Beaver oil is valued in China. But trappers discard the carcasses. All around him, “I see possibilities.”
A farm, maybe, with pecan, walnut and almond orchards. “But that takes time.” They need to team up on something quick. “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming. But we got here early this time.”
It’s just that there’s “no way for a poor man to start” a business without “capital, leverage” or “a crime.”
When Cookie, who apprenticed under a baker in Boston, gets in a word edgewise, he talks of “a hotel, with a bakery.” He can cook, and he can bake. It’s just that in this neck of the (literal) woods, ingredients are in short supply.
That’s when they first take note of the “First Cow.” The tough-minded British fussbudget (Toby Jones) imported it. Can’t have our tea without cream, can we? And being a fussbudget, you know he has a cat, which likes a little milk, too.
King Lu sees the possibilities here, not with “capital” or “leverage,” either.
“Can cows give milk at night?”
Thus they set out to earn their fortune, procuring the ingredients for deep-fried, honey-dipped “cakes” (corn muffins or hush puppies, of a sort), just the thing to make trappers, soldiers, prospectors and the rest part with their “pieces of silver.”
The film, the best that director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Night Moves”) has yet made, scores “parable” points for showing how many a money-making enterprise is built on breaking the rules and stealing, from land speculating and “squatting” to Google and Uber.
Adapting Jonathan Raymond’s novel (he co-wrote the script), she gets the hardscrabble period details just right. That sets the table for the little bit of civilization that the baker brings, making grown men (Ewen Bremner plays a Scots settler) get misty-eyed over “a little taste of home.” To the Englishman in charge, “I taste London in this cake.”
The recipe? “Ancient Chinese Secret!”
The cast sparkles, with Jones in particular livening things up with a little 19th century “posh” and “menacing,” Bremner (“Trainspotting”) still needing bloody subtitles and Lee and Magaro giving a light touch to their “fellow outsiders” chemistry.
And the lovely air of melancholy that hangs over all is might be the knowledge that no San Francisco bakery or hotel named “Lu & Figowitz” ever came to be. Or maybe we paid attention to the movie’s prologue, featuring a modern woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog wandering those same river banks.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Alia Shawkat, Ewen Bremner and Toby Jones
Credits: Directed by Kelly Reichardt, script by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond. An A24 release.
Running time: 2:02