Selling milk-based products to the masses in 1820 by Richard Jones

A look at First Cow (PG)cow

These days everything we need can be bought at specialist downtown shops and supermarkets. We also can have food and beverages delivered after ordering on-line so it takes time to remember how different things were back in the 19th century. In those far distant times a simple beverage such as milk wasn’t available in bush or outback locations.

That’s the premise in this movie. Cooking simple food items such as biscuits and cakes with milk as a key ingredient. It took a while to get going. A present-day teenage girl is out for a walk for a dog when he alerts her to a strangle pile. Busy with his front paws he uncovers a human bone. She immediately scrapes deeper until she uncovers two complete skeletons, lying side by side.

Who on earth could they be?

It’s then that director Kelly Reichardt takes us back to 1820s frontier America, somewhere deep in the Oregon wilderness.

A bunch of beaver trappers intermingled with a few hopeful gold diggers are hassling the man who is responsible for preparing their food: Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro).

Nightfall is not long away and he’s harvesting a bunch of dodgy-looking mushrooms when he spies someone hiding in the bush.

It’s a naked Chinese man who tells Cookie he’s being hunted by some furious Russians.

King Lu (Orion Lee) tells Cookie of his plight and the camp cook takes Lu back to his tent, covers him with some spare blankets and prepares the evening meal for the angry trappers.

Next morning they flee leaving the trappers to launch a hunt for Cookie. The pair of runaways lunge off a waterfall cliff and into a river and make their getaways.

But they get separated and the story continues on, sometime (maybe months) later, when Cookie comes across King Lu’s small, plain cabin not far from a semi-urban settlement.

Cookie takes up his old trade cooking biscuits, but also sets about making the cabin more hospitable – sweeping, tidying up dishes, even gathering wildflowers to place in a small jar. And then they come upon a grazing cow, also not directly adjacent to the rough settlement.

It’s not a community cow. It belongs to the district’s biggest landholder, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who’s had her shipped up from California or somewhere further south. And she’s the first cow in the territory.

Cookie had started selling some home-cooked produce in town, but now he senses a real bonanza: sweet biscuits, cakes and cookies only possible with the addition of milk. He leaves the cabin in the dead of night, milks the cow and takes the milk back to the cabin for his cooking. The cakes and biscuits are snapped up by the settlement’s citizens.

Even the Chief Factor joins the queue to taste and buy Cookie’s produce and he comments on how tasty they are.

But King Lu senses the danger. He begs Cookie to wind up his operation so that they can collect their loot – stored away in a tree close by the cabin – and hightail it to another location.

Chief Factor has been hosting a visiting Scottish captain (Scott Shepherd) even offering the military man some cream with his coffee.

He tells the Captain the cow hasn’t really produced heaps of milk immediately provoking the captain into thoughts of theft and misdeeds.

So off they go to see the cow with an Indian chief, Cookie and Lu in the party. The cow instantly recognises Cookie, nuzzles him which straight away sets off warning signals in the landholder’s and Captain’s heads.

It’s time to go, but Lu wants to sell one more batch of biscuits.

Unfortunately for the burgeoning capitalists a Chief Factor worker happens to be outside the evening the two main characters arrive to milk the cow one last time.

Perched in a tree as a lookout Lu’s branch snaps, Cookie knocks over the milk can and everyone in Chief Factor’s house hears the commotion.

It’s time to flee with Chief Factor’s men in pursuit. Cookie falls down a hill and injures himself while Lu has to return to the tree where they’d stored their cash in a bag.

He watches from high in the tree as his cabin is destroyed, but the man who’d heard them the night before sees Lu and tracks him through the bush. He continues on even after Lu has re-joined Cookie.

Cookie’s injury means he can’t keep up with his colleague so they both lie down under a tree to sleep. The tracker isn’t too far behind.

Unlike the previous week when I was the only one in our group to warm to Six Minutes to Midnight I was the sole viewer this time to find First Cow a bit slow.

Still, it was worth going to see and I found out later that First Cow had been named one of the 10 best films of 2020 by the National Board of Review and had taken out the Best Film prize at the New York Critics Circle Awards.

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