A heartwarming tale of friendship amidst hardship during the 19th century frontier
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 in film focus on tenderness and honesty, but Kelly Reichardt‘s latest film First Cow (slated for a Q1 2020 release) gives the audience a quietly powerful illustration of just that. Couple that the film is set in an austere and rugged backdrop (the 1820’s PNW frontier), and the juxtaposition of theme-to-setting is all the more effective. First Cow isn’t a loud film. It isn’t a big film. But it’s got a lot of heart, a lot of humor, and is a lean distillation of life—and brotherhood—on the frontier. An adaptation of a Jon Raymond novel, “The Half Life,” the film is set in the hardscrabble frontier soon-to-be Oregon. Rather than show wide shots of the natural setting, Reichardt’s cameras focuses in on the characters and expression—in what seemed to be 4:3 format.
The film opens on a hiker (Alia Shawkat) who discovers the skeletons of two men holding hands. Rewind a couple centuries to follow our protagonist Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a soft-spoken, gentle cook who has signed on with a trapping party. He meets King-Lu (Orion Lee) by chance in the woods; a confident yet on-the-run Chinese immigrant. Naked, starved—and an immigrant—Cookie shows compassion rather than harshness, offering food, shelter and safety. The duo cross paths again 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 scheme 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 slowly focuses on the budding business partnership (apparently pared down compared to the novel), it’s simultaneously building a beautifully honest relationship between our two protagonists. The duo use the stolen milk to sell oily bread—what is essentially fried baked goods with honey. But more than a buddy comedy, First Cow offers up a look at the frontier with the juxtaposition of boundless opportunity yet sprawling with lawlessness and despair. Cookie and King-Lu know they cannot keep up the charade forever, they’ve gotta have an escape plan. 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.
More important than where, 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, visiting the first cow—the low stakes crime—and the ultimate sacrifice one of them makes at the end of the film, all fill the space beautifully. First Cow isn’t the most exciting film to premiere this year, not by a long shot, 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 titular first cow. Orion Lee’s confidence and swagger in a world where that doesn’t seem possible. The formatting.
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.
Should you see it: Yes! it doesn’t come out until March 2020, but yet. 9/10.
Studio: A24 // Original release date: March 6, 2020