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'First Cow' review: How the West was won, one oily-cake at a time. Heavens, they're tasty.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Editor's note: "First Cow," a singular achievement from the singular American writer-director Kelly Reichardt, opened theatrically in Chicago March 13. It closed three days later, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced slammed the doors shut on indoor theaters, along with much of the rest of American economy. Reichhardt's film makes its $12.99-$14.99 streaming debut Friday (July 10) on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu and Fandango.

Home: The place where, as Robert Frost wrote, "when you have to go there, they have to take you in," as wary as that sounds. In a movie such as Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," the word "home" inserts itself into the mouths of the screenwriter's characters often enough, and bluntly enough, so that the audience's work is done. The theme becomes nearly deafening.

Kelly Reichardt's beautiful, plaintive new picture, the wryly titled "First Cow," works the same idea in an entirely different way, without the orange highlighter. She is one of America's truest creative voices. Unlike Nolan or anybody else making movies today, for that matter, Reichardt allows an idea and an entire film to reveal itself gradually. The drifters and settlers in this story, set in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s, have made their way to a strange, wild place, eager to exploit it one way or another.

"We don't know where these people were before," Reichardt told The Guardian in 2014, regarding the people in her films. "We spent a week with them and then on they went."

"First Cow" expands that time frame and fills it with an unlikely, wonderfully acted friendship of contrasting outsiders. Cookie Figowitz works as a cook for a rough group of trappers on the trail to Fort Tillicum. One day in the woods Cookie discovers King-Lu, naked, cowering. He's no trapper; he's been chased, Cookie learns, by a pack of vengeful Russians in retaliation for a murder he committed. China is long way away. Quiet, big-hearted Cookie gives him a blanket and shields him from discovery.

From there Reichardt develops a business success story involving a significant deception. Cookie and King-Lu decide to go into the makeshift bakery line. With milk stolen from the region's one and only cow, owned by the territory governor (Toby Jones, perfect in his unctuous smugness), they bake and sell "oily cakes" -- a simple, greasy cross between fried doughnuts and buttermilk biscuits. (Over at Slate, Dan Kois made his own.) These rough-hewn gems become the crack of 1820s Oregon Territory. Trappers, traders, scoundrels and honest men alike can't get enough.

 

"It tastes of England," the governor says, lost in a sweet, deep-fried reverie.

A subterranean line of suspense runs through "First Cow," since the characters, who share a shack in the woods in a non-sexual arrangement, wonder aloud about how long they'll be able to purloin the milk without paying for it with their lives. King-Lu watches everything, every second. He sees the way the citizens and transients of the region size him up. He's the conspicuous Other, barely worth acknowledging, compared to Cookie's easy assimilation into this new world of hot, tasty profit. Still, as King-Lu says: "History hasn't gotten here yet." Maybe this place can be a home for a while.

In Reichardt films ranging from "Wendy and Lucy" to "Meek's Cutoff" to "Certain Women," the lives of outsiders are defined by the natural world, economic circumstance and by their own dreams of connection. "First Cow" is one of her very best. The script by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond comes from portions of Raymond's novel "The Half-Life." At one point, the screen version was to have taken place partly in China; for whatever reason, budgetary or narrative, Reichardt opted for a tighter, Oregon-set tale, the location of most of her previous works. The results play out like a shrewdly amplified short story.

John Magaro is mighty fine as Cookie: a tentative, easygoing soul who may be too tender for this particular corner of American history and American capitalism. Orion Lee is equally vivid as King-Lu, his ambitions spiced with wariness at every turn. Even the smallest roles register: This was Rene Auberjonois' final screen assignment, though not his only one for Reichardt. Alia Shawkat appears briefly in a prologue set in the present, setting up our entry into Reichardt's unerring evocation of the past.

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