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‘First Cow,’ the Perfect Quarantine Baking Film, Is Now On Demand

For those unfamiliar with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, First Cow may not be what they expect from an A24 movie. The film— which is now available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and more—is not a twisted psychological thriller, nor a high-stakes character study, nor a coming-of-age comedy. Instead, it’s a slow-moving, almost soothing western. It’s a romantic yet unglamorous version of the American dream. It’s a quiet reflection on survival and finding meaning in the tedious, mundane chores needed to keep us alive. And it is, essentially, the perfect bakery tale for these pandemic times.

Most of First Cow takes place in the Oregon Territory in the 19th century, when Americans were traveling west to start a new life from scratch. That’s a lot easier said than done, especially in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a traveling cook, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, decide to fight the elements of nature and mankind, together. They get a break when the very first cow—a magnificent, gentle brown creature—arrives in the territory.

At first, Cookie—who used to work in a bakery— steals a little milk to make some biscuits for himself and his new life partner, King Lu. But when his “oily cakes” become a local sensation thanks to the secret ingredient—milk—Cookie and King Lu hatch a plan to open their own business. The wealthy owner of the cow (Toby Jones) wouldn’t be pleased if he knew Cookie was milking his prized possession in the dead of night, but he sure does love those oily cakes. (The oily cakes look a bit like doughnut holes, come with a honey sauce, and look freakin’ delicious. Do not watch this movie on an empty stomach.)

FIRST COW, 2019
Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

For about 30 or so delightful minutes, First Cow is a full-on “bakery AU,” or alternate universe, a term used to describe a genre of fanfiction that places well-known characters in a bakery setting. And, as at least half of Americans throw themselves into a new pandemic-induced baking hobby, First Cow couldn’t have come at a better time.

Cookie—previously adrift and nearing total destitution—finds a sense of purpose in baking. We watch him methodically mix his ingredients, pour batter into a cast-iron pan, and carefully extract his creations from the fire. We can feel how the movement centers him; how they calm him. Anyone who’s Googled “how to make a sourdough starter” in the past five months can relate. Baking might not be quite as necessary to surviving coronavirus as it was to Cookie and King Lu surviving the frontier. Still, this pandemic has reverted many back to a simpler way of life, reminiscent of a time when life revolved completely around homestead tasks like cooking and sewing. We are proudly posting pictures of our homecooked scones and banana bread on Instagram, because what else is there to be proud of right now? What other options do we have to stay sane?

First Cow is Reichardt’s 10th film, and, before the coronavirus, it was shaping up to be her most financially and critically successful film yet. The limited theatrical release on March 6 was already the biggest opening of Reichardt’s career, but the wide release was scrapped following the theater shut-downs due to COVID-19. A bummer, no doubt. But perhaps First Cow will resonate even more with American audiences at home in a pandemic than it would have for indie film audiences in theaters. There’s no better time for a movie about finding the simple joys in survival.

Where to watch First Cow

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