Film & TV

Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ Blends Milk, Mischief and the Melancholy of 19th Century America

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A24’s clandestine cow-milking period piece “First Cow” is destined to be the studio’s latest critical darling, even if its strange tempo and melancholic atmosphere might alienate mainstream audiences.

The film, which releases in limited theaters March 6, primarily focuses on the fast-rising pastry business of timid baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his unexpected business partner King Lu (Orion Lee), an enterprising Chinese immigrant.

Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (“Certain Women,” “Night Moves”), the film sounds like a zany comedy on paper, but finds both humor and sorrow in unexpected places, starting with Cookie and King Lu’s introduction.

When the duo first cross paths, Cookie is the soft-spoken cook of a logging group traveling to Oregon Territory when he runs into King, who’s naked, frozen and starving in the woods. King’s discovery is scary at first, then becomes awkwardly comical for a beat before Cookie realizes how helpless and endangered King truly is.

King explains he’s trying to evade a group of Russian beaver trappers who claim he killed a member of their group. Cookie is skeptical, but King explains his murder was vengenace for a friend of his who the Russians executed based on falsified accusations.

While suspicious, Cookie takes King at his word and decides to help him. Cookie is nothing if not creative, and he’s able to conceal King in his group’s supply wagon long enough for him to escape. 

Reichardt’s earlier eco-terrorism film “Night Moves” is a beautiful example of building organic tension, and King’s escape scene proves Reichardt’s still got her chops. Reichardt packs an absurd amount of weight into two newly introduced characters’ escape efforts, and provides a benchmark for the film’s tone.

Shortly after King’s escape, the pair meet again in a small Oregon Territory settlement. Expressing his gratitude, King invites Cookie back to his cabin for a night of drinking. This drunken bonding session leads to a nighttime milk raid on wealthy landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who owns the only milk cow in town. 

Stolen goods attained, Cookie puts his superior baking skills to work. One delicious butter cake later, King has formed a plan: the duo will use Factor’s milk cow to bake and sell the best-tasting pastries in the Oregon Territory.

In the hands of a lesser director, the film’s exploration of masculine ambition and class division might take a backseat to the hilarity of watching two men repeatedly execute nighttime raids centered around milking an adorable, completely indifferent cow. 

Instead, the opposite is true. The duo’s nighttime raids are quite funny, but milking a cow is tough, noisy work, and the film’s quiet frontier setting makes the process even more nerve-wracking. Still, the film offers more than some mild laughs and 19th century thrills.

Reichardt’s depiction of 19th century America and eclectic supporting characters leave the film with a melancholic languor — the natural result of revisiting a bygone era so heavily marked by ambition and uncertainty. Once again, the film displays Reichardt’s directorial savvy by acknowledging this inevitability early on and allowing viewers to appreciate it themselves.

As expected, the film raises its stakes as the duo’s business grows. John Magaro (“The Big Short,” “Carol”) and Orion Lee (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Skyfall”) portray Cookie and King respectively as having a natural chemistry tainted only by the inherent mistrust of their recent introduction, and watching their business succeed is the film’s biggest delight. 

However, there’s reason to believe neither man is the person they present themselves as — Lee’s King has a friendly exterior, but also possesses a sinister layer matched only by the hidden determination Magaro imbues the outwardly timid Cookie with. Reichardt’s movies tend to be populated by nuanced, hard-to-quantify characters, and this film is no exception.

Too often, giving characters “hidden” personality traits is a one-stop shop for lazy twists and wildly out-of-character choices, but Magaro and Lee’s performances here display a nuance and realism rarely executed this precisely. Reichardt knows most real people disguise and conceal parts of their personalities, so she allows her characters to do the same, preferring to let her stories force those traits to the forefront organically.

The film’s ability to blend an unorthodox sense of humor with high quality drama is commendable, but neither element would work without Reichardt’s precise characterizations, or Magaro and Lee’s performances as those characters.

Reichardt’s latest masterpiece, “First Cow” is an expertly written, quirky thriller, but it’s also a forlorn depiction of ambition’s futility and a touching bromance. Few directors are capable of balancing the amount Reichardt does here, and those who do usually aren’t blessed with two lead performances of this caliber.

“First Cow,” rated PG-13, comes to Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema (2828 N Clark St.) on March 6.

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