Review: First Cow

John Magaro in “First Cow.”

Dir. Kelly Reichardt. 122 minutes.
4/5

Revisionist historical movies usually amp up the violence, the misery and the scandal of their predecessors: take Guy Ritchie’s leather-jacket-wearing King Arthur or the profanity-glutted “Deadwood.” “First Cow,” set in 1820s Oregon Territory, follows Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), two fur trappers who strike it modestly rich by vending fried honey cakes to hungry pioneers. However, Cookie and King-Lu’s business depends on a local landowner’s prize Jersey cow, which they sneak out to milk each night.

A film so calm and quiet it’s practically inaudible, “First Cow” might have been made to watch while self-isolating. Its storytelling is as precise and unrushed as Cookie’s cake-baking, spellbinding us with its small-scale drama, and without any of the hair-raising sadism recent Westerns might have led us to expect. As an aside, “First Cow” does nothing to glamorize its cooking scenes — at one point, we watch Cookie whisk batter using a bundle of sticks — which makes them all the more appetite-whetting than the glossy, sterile images we’re used to seeing in ads.

Cookie and King-Lu, two frontiersmen who aren’t especially roguish but who also don’t enjoy being broke, share an easy warmth that makes their milk-theft seem understandable and even necessary. This isn’t “There Will Be Blood” — no one is selling their soul for a handful of silver. Toby Jones, appearing almost as a living caricature of the “fat capitalist,” is appropriately cast as the owner of the cow and the film’s de facto villain. A miniature drama told with tenderness and grace, “First Cow” is worth watching — just don’t do it on an empty stomach.