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Laramie Movie Scope: First Cow

A melancholy, low-energy drama

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 22, 2021 – This is one of those movies, like “Meek's Cutoff” (2010) that I was not anxious to see, partly because I had to pay $4 to stream it, and I was afraid it would be as boring as “Meek's Cutoff” was.

I am happy to say that it is much better than “Meek's Cutoff,” even though it is a melancholy, low-energy film. At least this one has a pulse, and a bit of humor. Like “Meek's Cutoff,” this film is set in Oregon in the 1800s and filmed in Oregon as well.

The film opens in modern times, along the Columbia River. A woman walking her dog finds two skeletons buried side by side. We are then transported back to the 1820s in the same area, along the mighty Columbia. There we see, what we think are these same two men, finding each other for the first time, in the wilderness, in the dark.

How this happens is Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (played by John Magaro of “Overlord”) is gathering mushrooms in a densely wooded area, at night, with no light, which is unbelievable by the way (try it sometime). In the dark, he spots a naked man hiding in the dense brush. Cookie, being a friendly guy, says “Hello.” A deep, resonate voice answers in perfect English.

The voice belongs to King-Lu, a Chinese man on the run from some Russian trappers. Cookie is naturally curious to know why King-Lu is naked and why he doesn't have his gun with him if he is being pursued by men who want to kill him. The answers he gets don't make much sense, but Cookie fetches him some clothes and he lets King-Lu sleep in his tent.

In the morning, King-Lu (played by Orion Lee of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) is gone, which is probably just as well, given the extremely rough nature of the trappers that cookie is cooking for. The two men meet up again later in a trading post which seems to be run by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones of “Atomic Blonde”) a wealthy trader, and owner of the first cow in the territory.

Once again, Cookie and King-Lu are sleeping together (read what you will into that) in a small shack in the woods, about a mile from the trading post, when King-Lu comes up with a plan to make some money by selling baked goods with a “secret Chinese ingredient.”

The secret ingredient is milk, secretly milked from the Chief Factor's cow in the dead of night. Cookie is a skilled baker and his little cakes are in great demand and fetch a good price. This plot could have easily been converted into a very entertaining comedy, but then, it would not win any awards. King-Lu says ominously, “This is a dangerous game we are playing.” Remember the two skeletons? Well, how could you forget?

I was dreading the inevitable conclusion to this story, but was greatly relieved when the ending of the film is left a bit up in the air. I am not a fan of ambiguous endings (“Meek's Cutoff” has an ambiguous ending too) but I appreciated this one.

So, you've got a rich capitalist out to kill these two over a small amount of milk. You've got themes of social inequality, social injustice, much of it filmed in Multnoma County, not far from the site of some of the biggest, most enduring social injustice protests of recent years. Probably this is not a coincidence.

This film has made a lot of critic's top 10 lists for 2020. It won't make my list, but it is a good film mainly because of the compelling story of friendship, and, of course, the performances by Orion Lee and John Magaro that bring this friendship to life. It is good to be reminded that friendships should not be on a transactional basis.

Too many scenes in this film are shot in the dark, or in poor lighting conditions, which detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the film. It is filmed in the old “Academy standard” 1.33:1 aspect ratio used in old TVs and old motion pictures. If it had been filmed in black and white as well, that would have guaranteed it some cinematography awards. There are believability issues and some pacing problems with the film, too. A couple of conversations go on way too long, kind of like those PBS NewsHour interviews that go on way too long. This film rates a B.

My geeky side was pleased to see Rene Auberjonois in the credits, playing an odd looking old man with a raven sitting on his shoulder. Auberjonis played Odo in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and he also played Father John Mulcahy in Robert Altman's hit film, “M*A*S*H.” Besides Toby Jones, I also recognized Gary Farmer from “Pow Wow Highway,” “Dead Man” and other films. Good to see a few familiar faces.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2021 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]