Seen in its most positive light, A24’s First Cow (from festival titan Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond) is a work of 19th-century hobo food porn, a combination of words I never knew could exist, let alone be something I wanted.
John Magaro and Orion Lee play Cookie Figowitz and King Lu, respectively, two penniless drifters who’ve made their way to the still mostly unspoiled Oregon Territory seeking their fortune. With a meet-cute involving murderous Russians and grouchy beaver trappers, the two become fast friends and eventually hit on a scheme to sell primitive funnel cakes using poached milk (as you may have surmised from the title, the territory has recently welcomed its first cow, owned by a rich guy in a top hat played by Toby Jones).
(*Eddie Vedder voice* “I don’t miiind, stealin’ miiiilk, from the moooouths of decadeee-eeence…”)
Reichardt, clearly from the Terrence Malick memorial tone poem school of cinematic impressionism, is at her best when filming the two pals frying up their “oilycakes” for Fort Tilicum’s rogue’s gallery of filthy roustabouts. The entire sequence (shot, like the rest of the movie, in a squarish aspect ratio that positively screams “hey check it out, we got creative with the aspect ratio”) is a stirring tribute to the power of food and made me immensely hungry.
Cookie and King have an adorable relationship and the mortal danger they’re in just for wheezing a little milk under the stars belies the otherwise droll exercise that is this movie (“at its heart, it’s really a critique of the American Frontier”). Cookie even occasionally tells jokes, like “do you know what side of a tree has the most branches? ….The outside.”
It’s unfortunate, though, that their relationship never gets much beyond adorableness. First Cow has a tendency to feel more like a This American Life vignette than a film, shot with the same timid sensibility that makes you wonder if they were trying not to wake a sleeping baby in the next room. The cinematography is sensual and impressionistic, yes, and at its best when dealing with the food, for which sensuality and impressionism are well suited. But it’s also a touch navel-gaze-y, and I’m still of the opinion that being able to get more information from a film’s written synopsis than from the film itself is a bad thing. Maybe one less loving shot of Cookie picking mushrooms and one more establishing shot that tells us where we are and what’s happening?
It also seems intended as a beautiful portrait of friendship, and I suppose I can believe that a caring, platonic, mutually beneficial friendship between two men is possible, especially in a gold/beaver rush territory without many women. But First Cow as a whole also feels chaste to the point of denial, like acknowledging the existence of sex as more than something you read about in The New Yorker would somehow sully a nice gentle movie like this. For two former indentured servants making their living off funnel cakes made from stolen milk, King and Cookie are almost meticulously un-rascally. These two make Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn look like British football hooligans by comparison. Would it have killed them to let these guys have a little fun? Maybe drink and swear and smoke on occasion? They don’t, presumably because this is a movie by and for bookworms (that is, bookworms in personality, not in proclivity) who don’t like things that are too loud or openly crowd-pleasing.
A largely uneventful lullaby of a movie like First Cow is a departure from dumbed-down multiplex fare, but it also feels like such a reaction to it as to almost be beholden. Doing the exact opposite of what a Marvel movie would do isn’t a good thing 100% of the time. Those oilycakes sure did look good though. There’s a lot of beauty in First Cow, I just wish I could turn the volume up a little.