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“First Cow” – a kinder, gentler, frontier tale

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


(1) Skilled cook “Cookie” (John Magaro) and his fried biscuit partner “King-Lu” (Orion Lee) a Chinese immigrant. (2) Their first batch of biscuits are ready for sale at Fort Tillicum in the Oregon Territory.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


Blu-ray, DVD and Digital copy, 2019, PG-13 for brief strong language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Only extra is “A Place in the World,” a making-of featurette

KELLY REICHARDT’S latest indie film “First Cow” is a unique story of an even more unique friendship. It’s told with a gentle affection for its protagonists, as well as a deep appreciation of the beautiful nature that surrounds them.

The film opens in the present day, with a young woman and her dog hiking in the woods, and discovering two side-by-side skeletons in a shallow grave. Cut to the 19th century in the still wild Oregon Territory, where we meet “Cookie” (John Magaro), a hired cook for a group of trappers, who soon takes off on his own. He comes to the rescue of “King-Lu” (Orion Lee), a starving young Chinese man, and the two join forces in survival, but also in King-Lu’s money-making scheme centered on Cookie’s culinary talent.

Thanks to milk stolen in the dead of night, from the only cow for miles around, the two buddies start raking in dollars selling Cookie’s fried biscuits. “It tastes like England,” muses the “Chief Factor,” the wealthy English merchant (Toby Jones) and owner of the cow. He then hires Cookie to make him a berry clafoutis, a type of pancake dessert, for a dinner party. When Cookie and King-Lu deliver it to the Factor’s elegant home, they realize they’re a little too close for comfort to the cow and its owner, who makes a point of saying he’s puzzled by the meager amount of milk his prized animal has been giving. He brings a guest, as well as Cookie and King-Lu, out to show them the cow. The animal immediately goes over to Cookie and nuzzles him to the surprise of the Chief Factor and his guest – and the dismay of Cookie and King-Lu. You might guess where this is heading, but the journey to get there is enough to keep viewers engaged and thoroughly enjoying this very fine movie.

(1&2) The opening scene: A woman (Alia Shawkat) finds the skeletons of two bodies in a shallow grave. (3&4) Cookie only finds mushrooms for the next meal to prepare for the fur trappers.

(1) The first cow arrives in the territory. (2) Cookie spots some fish along a creek. (3) Indigenous girls work along the river bank.



This Lionsgate Blu-ray looks absolutely beautiful and well-contrasted, with its sylvan scenes of woodlands and waterways, as well as in the moody dark interiors of wooden huts and nighttime scenes around campfires and the cow.

As cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt points out in the making-of documentary, he framed his shots in a 4:3 square-shaped ratio with a 2.8K digital camera and mastered in 2K with heavy post-production film grain applied. He stayed away from wide shots, because of the film’s emphasis on “stories about people.” Skin tones are true, and fine detail is excellent.

The soundtrack is also very good, with realistic sound effects, and a lovely understated old-time folksy score by William Tyler. The dialogue is mostly quite clear, but Cookie tends to speak in low tones and swallows some of his words, which makes the optional English subtitles especially helpful.


The sole bonus feature is the making-of documentary, but it suffices thanks to its length, entertainment and a wealth of information. Reichardt talks about the novel, “Half-Life,” on which the film is based, which “spanned four decades and two continents,” making it completely unrealistic as a film.

(1) Cookie visits Fort Tillicum. (2) Cookie and King-Lu reunite after their first encounter. (3) “First Cow” was filmed in the wilderness near Portland, Ore.

(1&2) Cookie spots Evie the cow. (3&4) King-Lu and Cookie cook-up the idea to steal the cow's milk to make a perfect batter for their biscuits, which everyone wants a taste.


Its author, Jonathan Raymond, co-wrote the screenplay with Reichardt after they decided to “re-conceive” the novel, taking it on a “whole different path,” says Raymond, but following “some of the same footsteps.” The character of King-Lu was invented for the film, as was the story surrounding the cow. Blauvelt, the DP, praises Reichardt’s interest “in the functionality of life,” and her “observation of human beings.” He notes that the film was shot in forests less than an hour away from Portland, Oregon: “You’re in the 1800s all of a sudden.” He often shot day for night, an old-school trick often used in westerns of the 1940s thru ‘60s.

The director used the art of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington as inspiration for the visual mood she wanted in the film. She also names “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” as a model for the look of “First Cow,” also writing a small part for René Auberjonois, who acted in “McCabe.” It turned out to be his last movie role before his death in December 2019.

Magaro calls his character a “gentle soul … in a violent, aggressive world.” To prepare for their roles, Magaro and Lee were sent into the woods with a survivalist, says Reichardt, where they learned to start a fire without matches (in Oregon – how could they know?), and set primitive traps. Magaro was given period cookbooks and said he “cooked his way through them,” to prepare for his role. Reichardt says, “My way of working with actors is to give them things to do – like making a biscuit.”

Blauvelt notes Reichardt’s love for animals: “When Evie (the Jersey cow) showed up, we all fell in love with the sweet creature.” Reichardt adds that Evie now has “a great retired life … and she has a baby – named Cookie!”

— Peggy Earle

(1) King-Lu and Cookie deliver the clafoutis dessert to the Factor’s lavish home. (2) The cow nuzzles Cookie in front of the Factor and his guest. (3) The Factor continues to express disappointment in the cow's milk production. (4) He glimpses the two milk thieves running off, and realizes it's Cookie and King-Lu.


(1) Thomas (Jared Kasowski), one of the Factor’s workers, hunts down the thieves. (2) Cookie on the run, stops for some refreshment. (3) The two exhausted friends rest before they can continue their flight. 





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