By Leah Greenblatt
March 05, 2020 at 10:41 AM EST
First Cow John Magaro CR: Allyson Riggs/A24
Allyson Riggs/A24

First Cow begins with a wide shot of a cargo ship languidly choogling across the frame. And the movie is in fact a slow boat, though it’s many other things too: Gold Rush Western, murder mystery, tale of forbidden dairy — and perhaps most and best of all, a lovely, unhurried fable of male friendship.

Not unlike her fellow auteur Joanna Hogg, Portland indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) revels in a particular kind of long-bake filmmaking; the art, you might call it, of cultivating a sort of exquisite, intimate boredom.

In other ways they’re hardly similar at all: Hogg’s realm, in spare dramas like The Souvenir and Archipelago, is the quiet anxiety of upper-class English life; Reichardt generally hews much closer to the bone, her characters struggling merely to survive on the hardscrabble fringes of frontier America.

But both have a way of circling tedium until it swerves, often profoundly, toward the sublime. And Cow, for all its low-key quirks and gentle humor, does that beautifully; first in setting up the story of two radically different men, and then in bringing them together.

Cookie Figowitz (Orange Is the New Black’s John Magaro) is easily the most affable member of a roughneck crew of fur trappers somewhere in 19th-century Oregon. (He’s in charge of feeding them; hence the nickname). When Cookie heads out one day on a half-hearted scouting mission, he finds a man naked and shivering in the woods who he assumes must be one of the Native Americans from a nearby tribe.

In fact he’s Chinese, an itinerant sailor and adventurer who calls himself King Lu (Orion Lee). And in the scrubby frontier camp that passes for a sort of central hub, he’s the only one who shows much kindness at all to Cookie, offering to share his whiskey and the rickety shack he’s made his own.

That Cookie immediately starts housekeeping — sweeping, beating a rug, even gathering up a ragged little bouquet of wildflowers — shows how much he yearns to make a home. And soon the pair are living in a sort of happily platonic domesticity, whiling away the hours on whittling and fire-building and staying fed.

It’s Cookie’s longing for anything better than another round of plain water biscuits that gives King Lu an idea. Chief Factor (Toby Young) the settlement’s de facto bigwig, is in possession of a shiny new toy: the region’s one and only dairy cow. What if they siphoned off just a little bit of milk? And what if selling the fluffy, honey-dipped pastries they made from it could be their ticket out of there?

That's already almost too much to know about where Cow is headed — which sound counterintuitive, maybe, for a movie in which nothing much at all happens for long stretches besides waiting or talking or baking. Some itchy viewers probably (and understandably) won't make it past the first 20 minutes. But if they stay, the deliberate paces of Reichardt's storytelling do cast a sort of spell: a bittersweet comic absurdity, told in the rhythms of real life. A–

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