FIRST COW – Review by Susan Granger

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Director/co-writer/editor Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western takes a while to get into…first, there’s a quotation from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

In the prologue, a contemporary woman (Alia Shawkat) who is walking with her dog near a broad river discovers a pair of human skeletons. Then there’s a flashback…

Back in the 1820s in the Oregon Territory, shy, soft-spoken Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is gathering wild mushrooms in preparation for making an evening meal for a band of gruff fur trappers when he befriends a naked Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), on the run from some Russians.

A short time later, a wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones), known as the Chief Factor, receives the area’s first bovine, which arrives on a raft. Seeing the cow and appreciating Cookie’s baking skill in their make-shift kitchen, King-Lu comes up with a plan.

Late at night, they’ll sneak up to the prized cow and fill a pail with milk. Then, in the morning, when local workers/trappers gather at Fort Tillicum, they’ll sell their ‘oily cakes’ (fried biscuits topped with honey & cinnamon) which are an immediate success, spurring them to dream about opening a bakery in San Francisco.

Complications arise when the pompous Chief Factor asks Cookie to concoct a “clarfoutis’ to impress his pretentious friends. (A ‘clarfoutis’ is a French dessert in which layers of fruit – traditionally black cherries – are covered in batter, baked and covered with powdered sugar, often served with cream.)

Based on Jon Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, it’s adapted by Raymond and Reichardt, whose previous films – Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff – also bear the indelible stamp of the Pacific Northwest – along with tinges of 19th century Fredric Remington authenticity.

FYI: Originally, the title was Slow Elk, which is how Oregon’s native Chinooks referred to cattle.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, First Cow is a spare, sublimely subtle 7, a genial tale of genuine friendship.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.