First Cow — Review

“A truly engaging and rewarding film, intricately layered and executed with extraordinary detail and care.”

by Ken Bakely

There is a carefully observed wonder to Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. The film’s spare style comes with the elegant rhythm of poetry, delivered with a driving purpose as Reichardt guides us through a complexly imagined world. But she proves that these two ideas – of delicacy and intricacy – are in no way discordant: she is a precise filmmaker who crafts textured character studies, cast against settings that demand certain levels of contemplative patience. Here, she begins the story in the present day, when a woman (Alia Shawkat) stumbles upon two skeletons, pressed side by side, in a forest in Oregon. This connection to a mysterious past then takes us back two centuries, to 1820, with the introduction of Cookie (John Magaro), as he is known. He is a cook from Maryland with a proclivity for baking, and he is part of an expedition of fur trappers who have arrived in the area. He is uncomfortable with his surroundings, and the people he travels with, only finding a real human connection when, in a chance encounter, he meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant. The two hit it off, and soon decide to start a business of sorts together, when serendipity leads them to a most unusual opportunity. A wealthy English merchant (Toby Jones) nearby has brought the first dairy cow to the region, and Cookie and King-Lu begin to sneak onto the property at night, milk the cow, and  make buttermilk biscuits. They sell them, and the baked goods prove to be a profitable hit.

Of course, the rub here is that a key ingredient in their product comes from stolen goods. The tension that drives the film comes from the challenges that are posed in keeping the flow of milk going, as well as the burning desire for success, belonging, and profitability behind Cookie and King-Lu’s collaboration and the choices they make. In this respect, First Cow is a particularly clear-eyed analysis of the mythos surrounding the cultural concept of the “self-made” individual. But further at the film’s core is another, more direct story, and that’s the sturdy bond between the two main characters, brought sparklingly to life with pensive performances from Lee and Magaro. The film lives and dies by the dynamics of these two, and they present themselves effortlessly as two men living on the outskirts of a society that itself is already so far removed from anything they knew before. From there, it studies their endlessly passionate, but perhaps Sisyphean quest to live a comfortable existence outside of the strictures and boundaries placed around them. And though Reichardt’s overall aesthetic vision is rather minimalist, and her pacing is measured nearly to the point of defiance, she infuses the proceedings with a rich array of emotions. Amidst the weight of Cookie and King-Lu’s mission, there is clear sociopolitical commentary regarding the underpinnings of what they’re doing. Yet, as they strive to maintain the precarious balance of their predicament – where the more successful they are, the higher the risk they run of having this all collapse – there’s also an innate humor that drifts gently throughout.

First Cow is a truly engaging and rewarding film, intricately layered and executed with extraordinary detail and care. Alongside its critical look at the fantasies that enforce American capitalism, the movie has resplendent empathy and intuition in developing characters. The script, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, and based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life, colorfully concocts this story of improbable friendship and the peculiar situation they forge, and does so with a warm sense of humanity. It is brought to life with a roundly praiseworthy ensemble, alongside Christopher Blauvelt’s stunning cinematography to match. The film makes spectacular use of a boxed-in Academy aspect ratio; it showcases the deep, dark greens of the many forest-based settings of the movie, but does so in a way that painfully reminds us of the constraints that mark the lives of the main characters that they strive so desperately to escape. Reichardt has masterfully crafted a remarkable work that exceeds both in the quietest, most minute observations of characters and their lives, as well as providing  an omnipresent undercurrent focused on much larger musings regarding the deeper implications of their situation. By turns, it is heartbreaking and heartwarming, elegantly contained and realized from its enigmatic opening sequence to its moving final images.

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