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  First Cow The Fat Of The Land
Year: 2019
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Jared Kasowski, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Saddleback, Sabrina Morrison, James Lee Jones, Dylan Smith, Ryan Findley, Clayton Nemrow, Alia Shawkat
Genre: Western, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Cookie (John Magaro) is, as his nickname suggests, a cook in early nineteenth century Oregon, having had to give up his previous job and fend for himself in the woods with four other outcasts, all of whom tend to descend into in-fighting and scuffles with deadening regularity. Cookie is not interested in that, he finds it hard enough to find something for them all to eat every day, and he is relieved when he stumbles upon a river rich in fish to catch which finally gives them something to sustain their constitutions. But one day while out looking for mushrooms and berries, he stumbles on something else: a naked man (Orion Lee) on the run...

This gentleman is called King-Lu, and as they are both outsiders on the lowest rung of the social ladder they strike up a wary, but eventually warm friendship, especially when a stroke of luck comes their way as far as that precious food goes. The finding of something to eat is what many of us take for granted, but the story here deliberately takes away any shops that the two heroes might have used to purchase sustenance, partly to emphasise the dire straits they and thousands like them would be in back then, and partly to highlight the supermarkets most of us take for granted. It's safe to say, the supermarket will not be invented for some time when we drop in on this pair.

Director Kelly Reichardt, who co-scripted with author of the original novel Jonathan Raymond, appeared to be keen to encourage the audience to compare Cookie and King-Lu's existence, barely scraping by, with what they assumed to be a comfortable modern day, twenty-first century one for those who were viewing these characters. Therefore when a bit of good fortune goes their way, we should by all rights be relieved because we like these two, they represent a noble example of male friendship that every man should enjoy. However, there's a problem: in going into business, they are enacting a subterfuge that nobody in the area, in their ignorance, have cottoned on to yet.

It was all there in the title: Cookie knows about baking thanks to his training, and knows how to make a good-tasting biscuit (or scone, to British viewers) since that involves milk, which in turn involves the services of a cow. It just so happens one such bovine has been introduced to the area, which the two pals stage night-time raids on to drain it of its cow juice and make those biscuits the locals find delicious, so delicious that they will pay them handsomely for a taste. But it is not their cow, and the actual owner is a wealthy capitalist who has more experience in the matters of commerce than they do, not to mention the power to get people who cross him severely punished, even killed. He was the Chief Factor, played with understated pompousness by Toby Jones, pitching the role just right.

After all, we have seen how Cookie and King-Lu are living hand to mouth and are asked time and again by the film, is this fair? Though if you look at it from the Factor's point of view, he is being robbed - yet he and his kind have stolen the land and resources from the indigenous peoples (Gary Farmer is welcome as a tribal leader), and arguably, both sides are stealing milk from the cow, so where are we supposed to stand? The one thing that redeems the two baked goods entrepreneurs is that companionship, so precious in this world that only they appear to entertain it, cultivated over a slow first half of build-up so we can see this in detail. Some would say, too much detail, as their connection is never tested, they never argue, they get along famously throughout until - ah, but we are privy to some of their fate, if not all, as we have seen a young woman (Alia Shawkat) find their skeletons in the ground while out walking her dog in those woods. Did this mean it did not end well? In truth, we cannot be certain, and there are those who will have lost interest long before, but if you adjust to the pace, you may be moved. Music by William Tyler.

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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