Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro star in “First Cow.” (Courtesy Allyson Riggs/A24 Films)

Thick as thieves in ‘First Cow, Burnt Orange Heresy’

Very different films both based around moral complexities of stealing

In Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” opening Friday, a man known as “Cookie” (John Magaro) forages in the woods, looking for mushrooms.

He’s working as the cook for a traveling band of trappers in the early 1800s in the Pacific Northwest. The trappers are a vulgar, snarly bunch, rude and mean (and they snore).

Cookie doesn’t fit in. While searching the underbrush he comes upon a salamander, stuck, struggling on its back. He turns it upright and sends it on its way.

It’s a small moment, but it speaks volumes. It not only establishes Cookie’s kindness and gentleness, but also the harshness of the world around him.

Reichardt does this without a line of dialogue, and without much work required by the actor. She maintains this tension throughout the movie, without tricks of clanging music or choppy editing.

One particular scene in which a man admires Cookie’s boots — shiny and new in a muddy, grubby place — suggests a threat that lingers, but doesn’t explode. Nor does it need to.

“First Cow,” Reichardt’s seventh feature, is based on a novel by her frequent co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. Like their 2006 film “Old Joy,” it’s the story of a male friendship set outside of the trappings of civilization, and like their 2011 film “Meek’s Cutoff,” it takes place in pioneer days.

In the story, Cookie meets a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee), who claims to be on the run from Russians after killing one of their number, hiding in the woods.

Cookie gives him shelter, and later, in town, they meet again. King Lu invites Cookie to his shack, and they drink and talk.

The subject of the lone cow owned by the territory’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones) comes up. Cookie muses that he’d like to have some milk to make biscuits. King Lu proposes that they could simply sneak over and steal the milk at night.

They do. Before milking, Cookie strokes and speaks gently to the cow, with great respect and kindness.

With the milk, Cookie makes sweet “oily cakes” and King Lu arranges to sell them. The cakes sell out in minutes. They decide to make more. Then the Chief Factor learns about the cakes and invites the cook to make a special lunch for a visiting captain.

At its core, “First Cow” is a “waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop” story. But Reichardt isn’t interested in suspense in the most traditional form. Indeed, she begins the movie with a modern-day prologue in which a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog find two skeletons buried in the woods.

It’s not important whether Cookie and King Lu get rich, or get away with their scheme. What’s more important is their journey, all the little details and the things they discuss and learn and observe along the way.

For example, it’s far more satisfying to watch Cookie dust one of his cakes with a little cinnamon (“makes it nice”) than it is watching he and King Lu sell it.

Moreover, it’s immensely touching to see this lovely friendship growing and evolving, from an early scene in which the men separately perform chores, framed by the doorway and window, to a more complex kind of platonic love.

In the wild, “First Cow” suggests, men needed to be strong, but they can also be free to feel their feelings.

This simple thesis makes the movie far more than just a stodgy costume piece and ties it directly to now.

At this beginning of a new decade, Reichardt has proven herself one of the best directors working in America, and the patient, observant “First Cow” — opening Friday at the Embarcadero and Alamo Drafthouse — is good news for the future of cinema.


First Cow

Four stars

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner

Written by: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

* * *

From left, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang appear in “The Burnt Orange Heresy.”
Courtesy Jose Haro/Sony Pictures Classics

Another movie about crimes committed with the best of intentions is “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Due to health concerns, the March 13 opening day has been delayed, with no new date announced.

It’s based on a novel by the late, great pulp novelist Charles Willeford, best known for “Pick-Up,” “Cockfighter,” “Miami Blues” and “The Woman Chaser,” which also were adapted into interesting movies.

Better still, the screenplay was written by onetime Berkeley resident Scott B. Smith, who wrote the novels “The Ruins” and “A Simple Plan,” and received an Oscar nomination for his screen adaptation of “A Simple Plan.”

Appropriately, it begins with a writer, an art critic, James Figueras (Claes Bang, from “The Square” and Netflix’s “Dracula”) giving a presentation that is designed to show how easily public opinion can be manipulated.

After, he meets cool blonde Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Widows”) and they connect via some banter. They sleep together, and James invites her to come along for a weekend at the mansion of a wealthy art collector named Cassidy.

Cassidy (Mick Jagger, in his first honest-to-goodness movie role since 2001’s “The Man from Elysian Fields”) makes a devilish entrance. He explains that he has a guest staying on his estate, famous painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland).

However, Debney has not let anyone see his artwork for some time. So Cassidy asks James to obtain an original Debney for his collection, in whatever way is necessary.

Needless to say, nothing goes well. Each character dances around the edges of the truth; they play games with each other, or flat-out lie. It’s a gleefully illicit atmosphere, aided by the lustful Italian backdrops.

It’s almost disappointing when things escalate into violence, which seems too typical an answer for such a clever movie about deception.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” — the title refers to one of Debney’s mysterious artworks — was directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, who has made music videos and commercials and just one other feature film.

It’s possible that another filmmaker more accustomed to making longer works could have brought more finesse to the final section, without rushing headlong into darkness, possibly preserving some of the devious humor of the first half.

Nonetheless, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is still an uncommonly sophisticated crime film, wherein the things that are stolen may not necessarily be objets d’art.


The Burnt Orange Heresy ★★★

Three stars

Starring: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland

Written by: Scott B. Smith

Directed by: Giuseppe Capotondi

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes

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