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First Cow

Peter Malone MSC  |  21 April 2021

FIRST COW, US, 2019, Western drama. Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewan Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, René Auberjonois. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. 121 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes, violence and coarse language).

Certainly a striking title – and, perhaps, one that would not entice audiences into the cinema.

Reichardt has been making arresting independent films, small budget, since the early 2000s – Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves with its environmental campaign theme. She has also been into the American West, with the pioneers to Oregon, in her award-winning Meek’s Cutoff. Most of her films have featured women in central roles. But not this time.

However, again, it is a view of the American West, of pioneers and settlers. The setting is Oregon.

The film opens in the 21st-century, a young woman beside a river, huge ships passing by, her fossicking in the land with her dog and the discovery of two skeletons.

The film does not have 21st-century investigation but, rather, goes back to the 19th century in flashback. There are two men involved in this tale. The first is Cookie (Magaro), from Boston but moving west, on the hunt for meagre local food for an expedition. But what he does find hiding in the forest is a naked Chinese man, King-Lu (Lee). Cookie feeds him and King-Lu goes his own way.

Cookie returns to the camp and the arguments among the members of the expedition are reminders of the rugged life in the American West in those times.

However, the main action concerns life in the outpost town, Cookie’s survival and work, and his encounters with King-Lu. The two become friends.

By this time, audiences may be wondering about not only the first cow but any other cow. There has been a glimpse but then the cow disappeared. However, she is the property of an official, an Englishman, whose house and lifestyle is very much in the English manner. He is waiting for an opportunity for a bull to arrive.

Not so much drama for a catchy synopsis, but Cookie decides that he could make some scones if he had some milk. The result, he takes his stool to the owner’s property, milks the cow while King-Lu acts as lookout. The scones are an immediate success, the men lining up to buy them, tasting them on the spot and eager for more. So, more are provided, more milk being taken from the cow – and we realise afterwards that the owner just assumed that she did not have much milk.

So entranced is he with scones and biscuits that he commissions a cake to be made for the arrival of a visiting ship’s captain. Great success with the cake.

However, there is retribution in every story and, of course, the milk stealers are discovered, chased by the owner’s personal militia as well as the ship’s captain.

And so, it is for the audience to wonder about what will happen to Cookie and King-Lu – because most of us know in our heart of hearts that they are the men who will become the two skeletons found at the opening of the film.

The two central characters are well acted and are engaging – and, as with the title, the film and its narrative are more than a little offbeat.

Madman Films
Released 29 April
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media

 

 

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