Review: First Cow is a meditative frontier story

First Cow (PG, 122 mins)

Five stars

This meditative story of the friendship and entrepreneurship of men on the American frontier moves at a glacial pace but pays off in a memorable and contemplative viewing experience.

American indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt works with her longtime screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond to adapt Raymond's novel The Half-Life, set in the Oregon Pacific Northwest in the 1820s.

John Magaro in First Cow. Picture: Madman

John Magaro in First Cow. Picture: Madman

Like everyone else on the frontier, "Cookie'" Figowicz (John Magaro) is getting by on his skills, except instead of gold fossicking or violence, Cookie is a skilled chef and baker.

Attached to a troupe of unpleasant fur-trappers who see Cookie's unphysical skills as lesser and who treat him accordingly, Cookie is sympathetic and kind when he stumbles across King Lu (Orion Lee), who is hiding in the wilderness and on the run from some Russian hunters who want him dead.

Cookie and King Lu take off together and talk endlessly of ideas to make their fortune, perhaps setting up a boarding house in what will come to be known as San Francisco.

In the village where Cookie has a small shack, the local big man is Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who misses the finer things from his old life in London and so, at great expense, has had a dairy cow (played by Evie) bought up river, the first animal of its kind to come to the region, so that he can have milk in his tea.

King Lu comes up with a cunning plan, for him and Cookie to secretly milk the cow in the dead of night and use the milk in baked products the two sell in the local market.

The fluffy, flaky pastries are a sensation, the pair begin to accumulate the money to start a new life but it isn't long until Chief Factor hears about the new tasty treats. When he tastes them, will he taste the milk from his cow? How long until the boys' cunning plan comes crashing around their heads?

Director Reichardt makes small, deliberate films, my favourite being her 2010 film Meek's Cutoff with Michelle Williams, also set on the Oregon frontier.

She makes that same deliberate world in First Cow, particularly in the detailed research and recreation from her production team. With no supermarket to come for another century at least, we follow Cookie on a forage for his ingredients, netting fish in a stream, cooking his fare on traditional equipment and a hand-made whisk.

Some of this action happens in real time. Editing her own film, Reichardt isn't afraid to spend an immersive amount of time with the men walking through the forest, foraging berries, cooking a pancake. I found it meditative, some may find it tedious.

The film is shot rather dark, I'd suspect with as much natural lighting as possible. It looks great on a cinema screen, though I'd worry whether my flat-screen at home could cope with all of that black.

The costuming is detailed in authentic materials and tailoring, or the lack thereof, folk would have worn, and the period harp and fiddle of William Tyler's soundtrack continues to build the production's authenticity.

While there is much to enjoy visually, Reichardt gives you plenty for you to chew on intellectually. King Lu particularly spits insightful dialogue. "History isn't here yet," he muses on being pioneers to the region. "Maybe this time we can be ready for it, take it on its own terms."

The two leads, Magaro and Lee, give physical performances, both very strong.

The relationships between the traders and the indigenous population are touched on through a series of comic interchanges, and the credits acknowledge the involvement of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. If you want to see a brilliant and insightful take on how those relationships continue to play out two hundred years later, look for the sitcom Rutherford Falls on Stan.

Reichardt or perhaps her uber-powerful producers, the problematic Scott Rudin being among them draw in some big names for sometimes quite small roles. Toby Jones is the owner of the titular cow, Ewan Bremner is the captain of the guards, and television tragics will recognise Benson and Deep Space Nine actor Rene Auberjonois as a man who seems to have spent too many years in the deep wilderness.

Also joining the big names on screen is a very brief appearance in the film's opening scene set in the present day with Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development and Search Party fame as a modern day forager whose dog stumbles across an old collection of human bones, setting the film as a historical mystery.

This story A slow-paced but superb story first appeared on The Canberra Times.