NYFF Review: ‘First Cow’ and the warm, sneaky nature of friendship (and oily cakes)

If we’re going to simplify life, there are two ways to become friends with someone:

  1. You both meet, and you like each other, and so you become friends.
  2. You meet, you don’t really like each other, but then after some time together and likely some time apart, you start to like each other, and so you become friends.

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow explores the second type of friendship, deep in the backwoods of the Oregon Territory in the early 1800s. The film follows the companionship of two men, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee). Cookie is a man who loves to bake, and King is a man who loves to make money. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in the forest of the West Coast when Cookie finds King naked and on the run.

It would be easier to refer to them to their last names, as is the style of reviews and articles, but writing the word Cookie to describe Magaro’s lonesome, quiet character is just too much fun.

Reichardt crafts her own world, one based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond, in the two-hour runtime. We meet the camp’s Chief, Captain, town drunk, and errand boy. The first scene in the film features the great Alia Shawkat finding skeletons, only to never return to the screen. A cast of characters fills out around Cookie and King, but this is a story about these two men and the friendship that grows throughout the film.

It’s a story about two outcasts with specific skills, who find each other and decide to form a partnership. See, Cookie is a baker, one that can make oily cakes, and King is a master salesman.

First Cow is a film bursting with sweetness. It’s a mouth-watering journey of success, failure, and then survival. My focus throughout the film was on the oily cakes themselves and how they relate to the friendship they are keeping together. It’s important to add that they look delectable, and Reichardt sure convinced me of Cookie’s cooking capability.

Oily cakes, biscuits, are crumbly, sweet, fragile, and in this case, made with secrecy, sneakiness, and a bit of mischief. Cookie and King use a cow’s milk, the first one to come into the old camp, to make these delicious bites of goodness. They steal the milk from the Chief of the camp, and he even becomes one of their regular customers.

The oily cakes in this movie require patience, as does any good friendship. They require time to bake, and also time spent in line in order to order one, since they become the hottest commodity in this corner of the Oregon territory. These cakes are made out of a passion for baking, which is one of the reasons this movie stuck with me long after the viewing. Cookie just wants to save enough money to open a bed and breakfast down South, and King has joined him in this lifelong goal.

It’s a friendship born out of mischief, out of breaking the rules. These oily cakes require the two men to steal and lie, a formative bond for any friends. They require the men to get up early and stay up late, with every little conversation being a joy to the audience’s eras. We are in the cabin with them, just another cooks in the kitchen and criminals on the run.

It’s a warm film, headlined by a mighty yet gentle cow. The cow itself is a gorgeous animal. That much must be said in any article about this film. The acting in regards to this cow, especially Magaro’s tender touch, is sweet as can be, and every word spoken in the cow’s ears is wrapped in love. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

Magaro and Lee are both fantastic in the film, far surpassing the serviceable job they could’ve done due to the quiet brilliance of the script. They rose to the occasion, following Reichardt’s lead in making a film that blows you away with an almost impeccable latter half.

The film sneaks up on you, much like the friendship you’re watching. You can’t help laughing and relating to these men, even if they’re situation is one you’ll never experience. That’s the beauty of Reichardt’s storytelling and the power of a great onscreen friendship.

We watch a fragile partnership that turns into one of strength and dependence, and soon the oily cakes aren’t the only aspect of the dream. The dream includes both Cookie and King. They’re a package deal.

First Cow is about friendship, yes, but it is also about the oily cakes made by two men. You can’t have one without the other.

★★★★

First Cow is slated to be released March 6, 2020. Mark your calendars. 

Edit: Cookie was misspelled as Cooking and has now been changed to Cookie. A fun typo though. 

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