MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
It’s quite a striking and memorable image – a cow, floating on a raft, drifting down a river. The cow doesn’t show up until about twenty-five minutes into the movie and the main plotline doesn’t even begin until after the cow shows up. First Cow could properly be described as a western, since it takes place in the mid-19th century in Oregon, with fur trappers and gold diggers heading out to make their fortune. Impatient viewers wanting action and clearly defined good and bad characters in their westerns will probably be disappointed with this slowly-paced film. But those who want to enter into a perfectly evoked period in American history may discover one of the best companions in director Kelly Reichardt, whose 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff is possibly the best wagon train movie ever.
After a brief prologue that shows us the present-day location for the historical events that will follow, we go back to 1820 to meet Cookie (Magaro), the field cook accompanying a group of fur trappers. Cookie is treated with disdain by the macho men he works for as he wanders off to hunt mushrooms. It’s not a whole lot of fun for this creative chef, but things become interesting after he meets up with King Lu (Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is on the lam from Russians. King Lu has entrepreneurial dreams of making it big in San Francisco, but needs a startup business. Cookie’s culinary skills are considerable, including a great recipe for oily cakes (basically fancy fried dough), and there are a bunch of new prospectors with a lot of money and not much to spend it on. The two men become friends and business partners with a product that is in high demand. There is only one snag: their baked goods require milk. There is just one cow in town – and that cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a British kingpin who lives in the best house in town and rules the community with an iron hand. Cookie and King Lu decide to surreptitiously steal their dairy product from the cow in the middle of the night – I guess you could call it a milk run.
First Cow provides a cast of characters from all nationalities (including indigenous Native Americans) and then lets us observe how this disparate group got busy creating America. In many ways this film is a parable about capitalism and greed, reminding us of how many fairy tales – including Jack and Beanstalk – involve a cow. Like many good parables, First Cow leads us into unexpected places and refuses to provide easy answers or a definitive ending. If you can allow yourself to slow down for two hours, I think that you will discover two unforgettable characters as well as one of the best films of the year.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A story of developing friendship alongside the story of a developing nation.
Two pitchforks: Mild swearing; one brief scene of a naked man; mild violence; drinking and smoking; stealing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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