Should you see it: Absolutely. Kelly Reichardt is a master filmmaker, whose crafted an intimately beautiful film. 9.5/10.
IMDB Synopsis: A loner and cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory, though he only finds connection with a Chinese immigrant. The men collaborate on a business, although its longevity is reliant upon the participation of a wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow.
It’s rare to see portrayals of male friendship on film focus on tenderness and honesty, but Kelly Reichardt’s film First Cow gives a quietly powerful illustration of that. Juxtapose that with the film being set in an austere and rugged backdrop (the 1820’s PNW frontier), and tone is all the more effective. First Cow isn’t a loud film. It isn’t a big film. But it’s got a ton of heart, a lot of humor, and is a lean distillation of life—and brotherhood—on the frontier. A rough adaptation of a Jon Raymond novel, “The Half Life,” set in the hardscrabble frontier of soon-to-be Oregon. And rather than wide shots of the natural setting, Reichardt‘s cameras focuses in on the characters and their emotions—made more intimate by its Academy ratio (essentially square).
Opening on a hiker (Alia Shawkat) who discovers two long passed skeletons, appearing to have been holding hands in death. Rewind a couple centuries, we meet our protagonist Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a soft-spoken, gentle chef who has signed on with a trapping party. By chance he meets King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the woods one night while foraging; a confident, on-the-run Chinese immigrant. Naked and starved, Cookie shows King-Lu compassion rather than harshness; offering food, shelter and safety. Down the road the duo cross paths and scheme a business that’s born out of convenience: Cookie wants to become a baker, and King-Lu wants to get rich. But they need to steal milk from the titular first cow that’s been hauled up to the burgeoning area by wealthy landowner (Toby Jones).
As the plot rolls, the film focuses on the budding business partnership (pared down from the novel); how it’s simultaneously building a beautifully honest relationship between the two men. The duo use the stolen milk to sell “oily bread” or what is essentially a fried baked good with honey. But more than a buddy comedy, First Cow views the frontier through the lens of the juxtaposition of boundless opportunity yet sprawling with lawlessness and despair. Cookie and King-Lu know they cannot keep up the charade forever. When the jig is finally up, Toby Jones’s and co. hunt the duo down, and it’s clear where the film’s opening skeletons come from.
Most importantly the film shows us why the skeletons are holding hands. The films feels faster than it’s 121 minutes, as we watch the co-leads build a real and everlasting dependency on one another. Building a business, nurturing intimacy, visits to the the first cow—the low stakes crime—and the ultimate sacrifice one of them makes at the end, all fill the space beautifully. First Cow isn’t an action packed film, but it’s a stunning representation of male friendship and intimacy in an era—both the setting and our current climate—where that’s in short supply.
Highlights: The surprisingly humorous visits to the cow. Orion Lee’s confidence and swagger in a world where that doesn’t seem possible—and the irony of prejudice toward a Chinese immigrant… t a country of immigrants in the early 1800s.
MVP: The relationship of the co-leads. Not the performances, per se (which are good), but the organic way the duo come to build a business—and life—together.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Studio: A24 // Original release date: March 6, 2020