Review: “First Cow”

In her 2010 western “Meek’s Cutoff,” director Kelly Reichardt explored a group of pioneers trying to survive on the frontier in 19th century Oregon.  Reichardt returns to that time and place with her new drama, “First Cow,” which she also co-wrote along with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the novel The Half Life on which the film is based).

The story follows Cookie (John Magaro), a shy cook traveling west with a group of gruff fur traders.  One evening he stumbles upon a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee), who is being pursued.  They run away together and reconnect in a small settlement, where they quickly realize they share a similar mind and heart.  When wealthy landowner Factor (Toby Jones) receives the town’s first and only cow, Cookie and King Lu come up with a business idea: sneak onto Factor’s land at night, milk his cow, and use that milk to bake fresh cakes that can be sold in town.  Their enterprise is profitable, but not without risk.

John Magaro as Cookie in “First Cow”

“First Cow” explores similar themes in a similar style to Reichardt’s previous films, which have become known for their minimalist style (it’s also of note that Reichardt serves as her own editor).  As such, “First Cow” is punctuated with lingering, quiet moments that allow the audience to immerse themselves in the characters and their environment.  It would have been easy to cut down some of these sequences that don’t explicitly advance the action for a quicker paced, leaner movie, but the story would have lost a lot in that process.  Seeing how well they work together, and how they discuss what they’ll do with their money and where they’ll go really fleshes out the friendship and love that Cookie and King Lu share.  And despite the film’s light, slow pace, there is an underlying feeling of dread throughout that ratchets up in the final act.  We know that Cookie and King Lu can’t keep getting away with what they’re doing; it’s only a matter of who, what, when, and how they are found out.

“First Cow” also preoccupies itself with the plight of the working class, following the story of everymen like Cookie and King Lu.  The pair dream of success, independence, and of a better life in San Francisco, and we see how that dream can come back to bite you when you ask for too much.  We see the American pioneer story in Cookie and the immigrant story in King Lu side-by-side, and in reality they aren’t so different.  There’s also a great deal of commentary on class and privilege present throughout the film.  When Factor comes to try one of Cookie and King Lu’s cakes, the pair marvel at why he doesn’t seem to wonder where they got the milk for them, before deciding that some men are so comfortable, they can’t fathom anyone trying to steal from them.  And then of course there’s the fact that Factor is the only individual in town with (legal) access to any dairy at all, leaving the rest of the inhabitants to subsist on hardtack.

King Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro)

The cast is filled with talented actors in supporting roles, and while we learn next to nothing about these characters, Reichardt feeds us just enough visually to pique our interest.  Among the names are Scott Shephard, Ewen Bremner, Lily Gladstone, Gary Farmer, and the late René Auberjonois in one of his final film roles.  Magaro and Lee, however, both deliver two of the best performances of the year so far.  Lee imbues his character with confidence, Magaro his with sweetness, and the combination results in an incredibly endearing pair.  This isn’t a masculine movie, and Cookie and King Lu don’t embody the traits normally associated with the western hero.  There’s a quiet ease in their almost immediate companionship; they bond themselves to each other without ever verbally reaching that conclusion.  They take joys in simple (and traditionally feminine-coded) pleasures like cooking, cleaning, and picking flowers.  Cookie even forms a gentle bond with the cow he goes to milk every night.  The film continues to differentiate itself from the western genre with its full screen ratio (preventing any vast landscape shots), its dark, naturally-lit shots, and a simple banjo score by William Tyler that comes and goes intermittently.

“First Cow” ends abruptly, although a prologue at the start of the film brings it full circle and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.  We exit Cookie and King Lu’s lives just as suddenly as we entered them, and that feels appropriate for a low-key movie that relishes big struggles and simple dreams.

“First Cow” is now available to watch on demand. Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated PG-13. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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