(director/writer: Kelly Reichardt; screenwriter: novel “The Half-Life” by Jonathan Raymond/Raymond; cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt; editor: Kelly Reichardt; music: William Tyler; cast: John Magaro (Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz), Orion Lee (King Lu), Rene Auberjonois (Loner), Toby Jones (Chief Factor), Dylan Smith (Jack), Ewen Bremner (Lloyd), Lily Gladstone (Chief Factor’s Wife), Alia Shawkat (Young Oregonian), Scott Shepherd (Captain); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani; A24; 2019)

“It’s an engaging minimalist styled tale that’s deliberately paced and more a character driven than a plot reliant film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”/”Certain Women”) is the talented writer and director of this lyrical period piece on the frontier (that opens with a William Blake quote as a modern day Oregonian, Alia Shawkat, in a wordless cameo, while at a burial site discovers two preserved skeletons lying side by side and a story is framed around them). It”s set in the 1820s Oregon, in the territory before it became a state.

First Cow is based on the 2004 novel “The Half-Life” by Jon Raymond, who wrote the script with her.

“Cookie” (John Magaro) is a gentle but incompetent cook, trained to be a baker, who travels with a band of crusty fur trappers until he flees from them when they tell him his cooking sucks and he senses danger. While hunting in the woods, Cookie finds a gentle Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee), on the run supposedly from angry Russians and helps him escape. Afterwards the drifters become close friends, move to a new town and share a shack. All the time they dream of becoming rich.

When they discover that the pompous wealthy English trader and landowner, the chief factor (Toby Jones), has a cow in his meadow, the only one in the territory, at night they sneak in to steal some of the cow’s milk to make biscuits. They call them “oily cakes,” and they sell like hot cakes with the locals as a delicacy thanks to the milk. The partners start making some real coin, but things darken when they fear what might happen to them if the meanie chief factor learns they’re using without permission his cow for their milk.

Reichardt’s story looms as a social commentary on the value of the American dream as a force for capitalism and relates to how difficult it is to advance one’s station in life. But the message ultimately delivered is that there’s always hope to get ahead in this country if your talent can connect somehow with others, or you’re just plain lucky or you can get away with a crime.

It’s an engaging minimalist styled tale that’s deliberately paced and more a character driven than a plot reliant film, but is weaker than her other films because the delivery lacks force and the characters are more or less developed around the driven-agenda than evolving naturally in a convincing way.

Berlinale 2020: FIRST COW