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Movie Review: 'First Cow'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, two male bonding quest movies opened in theaters this week. The one that got mixed reviews involves animated elf brothers. The one that's getting raves is about drifters in the Old West. Critic Bob Mondello says the film "First Cow" examines an unusual friendship and a good deal more.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin in the here and now with a dog finding two skeletons side by side in the Oregon woods. Then director Kelly Reichardt flashes back two centuries to explore how they might have gotten there, to an 1820s Gold Rush that's long on hardship, short on creature comforts and ripe for dreamers hoping to get rich quick.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

ORION LEE: (As King Lu) There's no way for a poor man to start. You need capital. We need some kind of miracle.

JOHN MAGARO: (As Cookie Figowitz) Need leverage.

LEE: (As King Lu) Or a crime.

MONDELLO: Runaway Chinese immigrant King Lu is the brains here. Hash-slinger Cookie Figowitz is the talent. He foragers for mushrooms and berries and provides meals for trappers that fall on deaf tastebuds, as it were. But he tells King Lu if he had some milk, he could make an oily cake, sort of a fritter. Intriguing because the camp is abuzz about a new arrival, the first cow in Oregon, which gives King Lu an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

LEE: (As King Lu) We have to take what we can when the taking is good.

MAGARO: (As Cookie Figowitz) Seems dangerous.

LEE: (As King Lu) So is anything worth doing.

MONDELLO: Cookie goes along on a nighttime milking expedition, and properly fortified, his oily cakes hit the spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Good lord. Give me another.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'll give you six ingots for that last one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I taste London in this cake.

MONDELLO: That last voice belongs to the cow's owner, a smug, self-satisfied have among the have-nots of the town. He loves the cakes and only wishes his cow were providing more cream to go with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She barely produces a thing.

MONDELLO: Which means he's none the wiser about their pilfering - yet. Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is telling a tale here of friendship between men who have little in common besides their state in life, drifters trying to make it in a frontier outpost that's marked by capitalism at its rawest, civilization not yet civil, society barely formed but already growing rigid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

LEE: (As King Lu) History isn't here yet. It's coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.

MONDELLO: In Reichardt's telling, things rarely happen the way characters expect or the way the audience expects. How those first skeletons get there at the beginning, for instance? "First Cow's" twisty narrative offers a sort of answer, though Reichardt's in no hurry to get to it. So she can take time out to marvel at natural splendors and human frailty to examine dreams and deceit and devotion, and to take lots of unexpected detours to tell, in short, a resonant, funny and quite moving shaggy cow story. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.