“How long does it take to milk a cow? Make much noise? Can cows give milk at night?” It takes these three subsequent questions to decide whether or not to steal the milk from the “first cow in the Territory,” though not another word is spilled and no one makes any mention of thievery. This is a fine example of how Kelly Reichardt's First Cow proves to be a mesmerizing game of finding just the right amount of words. Be it to mock one another (“I bet you have a distinct opinion on what your tongue tastes like”), to historicize the narrative or to build a biscuit business, well-chosen words or the distinctive absence of them drive the story, which otherwise has little plot or action to work with, and affirm the Western-inspired worldview Reichardt evokes through her often minimalist narratives.
Set in the (not yet) state of Oregon in the 1820s, First Cow tells the tale of a taciturn chef named Cookie (John Magaro) and his friend and business partner King-Lu (Orion Lee). Together they go out stealing milk at night, which they use to bake and sell a delicious novelty in the village. All set up at the market, they wait, but it isn’t until King-Lu vocally presents their “Fresh Oily Cakes?”, with a slightly hesitant voice still, that the villagers turn their heads, soon proving that the secret ingredient turns a good profit. Naming things calls them into existence, be it fresh oily cakes, the first cow of the territory, or the state of Oregon.
The Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a man of status who fails to notice his milk is being stolen, has heard of these magnificent cakes and asks the talented cook to make him a clafoutis so he can humiliate a European companion who complains too much “about the savagery of life on the frontier.” The food hardly matters, the mere repetition of the word clafoutis and the prospective humiliation provide the sought pleasure. Who actually ate the clafoutis anyway? In a pivotal scene halfway through the film, marked by an elaborate 360-degree pan, the pastry is presented to the foreign Captain (Scott Shepherd) who has to admit it is a fine-looking cake indeed, yet right after that, the untouched dessert disappears into the kitchen never to be seen again. Plenty times it is vocalized/pronounced—clafoutis, clafoutis—but not once is the gesture turned around, showing anyone jamming a slice of blueberry pie down their throat.
Reichardt uses the first half of the film to subtly construct the historical setting through singular hints coming from various characters, to introduce a lonely cow who lost her husband and calf whilst travelling to her new home, to build the sense of a dream becoming a business. All three strands come together in the meeting of the Chief Factor, the Captain, Cookie and King-Lu, amongst the Chief’s Native American household and guests. When the company leaves the Chiefs house to have a look at the lonely bovine, contemplating how history “never reaches here at all,” whilst it “wears itself out” in Paris, the cow is notably more sympathetic towards Cookie who has been entertaining her with compassionate chatter during the late-night milking sessions. From here on the trouble begins. Insecurity kills a dream and the bond between Cookie and King-Lu turns intimate and silent. In the second half of the film, verbal expressions turn into a gestural journey. As quickly as words turn into power, as easily does the latter slip away again. However, a final bon mot lets both men regain their footing: “Why is a baker like a beggar? They both need bread.”