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‘First Cow’: Stolen milk the key ingredient in a sublime, bovine morality play

It’s a small story, set in the wild Pacific Northwest frontier of the 1820s, but it also inspires awe.

Cookie (John Magaro) finds a source of milk for his biscuit recipe in “First Cow.”
A24

Terrible title. Terrific movie.

“First Cow” sounds like a forgotten Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy about a NASA-trained bovine on a secret mission to the moon in the 1960s, but it couldn’t be further from that and thank God for that.

The gifted director Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meeks Cutoff”) adds to her impressive canon of minimalist, Oregon-set treasures with an immersive and deceptively simple and uniquely original frontier morality play set in the unforgiving Pacific Northwest of the 1820s.

This is the kind of film in which the cold and wet terrain and conditions are so real, you expect to find your shoes caked in mud as you exit the theater. It has none of the cleaned-up romanticism or anachronistically pristine set designs of those old-school movies about a new American frontier.

In fact, there’s an almost post-apocalyptic tone to the film, what with the early settlers living in tents and makeshift cabins and tin shacks, and a system in which everything from a fur pelt to a piece of silver to beads can be used to as currency.

“First Cow” actually opens in modern times, as a young woman (Alia Shawkat) is walking her dog, who uncovers a pair of human skeletons. (Movie rule: if you’re walking your dog in the country in the early moments of the story, your dog WILL find some human remains.)

Flashback some 200 years, as a bedraggled scavenger in tattered clothes and a hole in his shoe scours the hillside for wild mushrooms.

The man goes by the name of Cookie, as he is the cook for a rough-hewn team of fur trappers who have met with little success in recent weeks. John Magaro plays Cookie, who will become the main focus of our story. With his sad eyes and sad hat and sad beard and sad EVERYTHING, Cookie looks like he could have been painted by van Gogh. Heck, if van Gogh had ever imagined himself living in the American Northwest of the 1820s — that would be Cookie.

Through circumstances I will leave for you to discover, Cookie teams up with King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant with a checkered past but grand ambitions about reinventing himself and taking a big bite out of the new American dream. The two men become fast friends and even strike up something akin to happy domestic cohabitation when Cookie moves into King Lu’s tiny cabin, spruces it up and gives it a real homey touch.

There is an actual first cow in “First Cow.” A lone female bovine arrives in the ramshackle community, creating quite a stir as a harbinger of civilization. (A bull and calf were lost along the journey.) Cookie and King Lu concoct a plan to steal the cow’s milk in the dead of night, as that rare (for these parts) elixir is the key ingredient to the scrumptious biscuits Cookie and King Lu are selling to the locals for big profits.

Toby Jones plays an wealthy English settler in “First Cow.”
A24

Toby Jones is perfectly cast as Chief Factor (ahem), a wealthy Englishman who takes one bite of a biscuit and is overcome with emotion. It tastes like home! Oblivious to the fact Cookie is stealing the milk from HIS cow to make the biscuits, Chief Factor invites Cookie to his house to make a special dish for a visiting ship captain.

Complications ensue, as they say.

I love how “First Cow” salutes Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), one of the movies that first started me thinking about one day writing about movies. I loved seeing the late great character actor Rene Auberjonois, who was just starting out when he appeared in “McCabe,” making one of his final feature performances in this similarly themed movie. I love how “First Cow” opens with a line from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”:

“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

There’s something spare and small, and yet equally grand and awe-inspiring, about “First Cow.”