Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Premise: Set in the 1820s, a cook (John Magaro) befriends a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) while living in a frontier community in the Pacific Northwest. At night they steal the milk of a wealthy local man’s cow and use it to make baked goods that become a hit among the locals.
What Works: First Cow vividly recreates the rugged feel and flavor of nineteenth century frontier life. The characters live a frugal existence in a landscape that is undeveloped and First Cow’s visual style conveys the dirtiness and difficulty of their lives. The cold and grimy visual style contrasts with the warm friendship between the two protagonists. John Magaro plays Cookie, a cook who has been traveling with belligerent fur trappers, and Orion Lee is cast as King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant. The two men happen into each other’s lives and the story does a great job of characterizing these men through their actions. When Cookie first meets King-Lu, the immigrant is naked and alone in the woods and on the run for killing another man in self-defense. King-Lu’s predicament and Cookie’s decision to help him define their characters and foreshadows the events to follow. King-Lu and Cookie are affable characters as is the friendship between them; the film’s prologue suggests that things won’t go their way and that becomes a source of dread because these two men are so likable. First Cow is quite funny but not in an obvious way. That quality defines the picture. First Cow is understated and yet its nuances are unmissable. That’s a credit to the finely calculated performances but also to the direction by Kelly Reichardt who stages sequences in ways that draw our attention toward the unsaid meanings of each scene.
What Doesn’t: First Cow is a bit slow to start. The filmmakers take their time setting up the story and in its second half things take off. But the first half of the picture doesn’t have an obvious direction. Like its characters, this story is in search of its purpose and eventually finds it. This is a more organic approach to narrative than we typically find in mainstream films and it’s a valid way to approach a story. In retrospect, the film is actually quite efficient in its storytelling even though it doesn’t feel that way on the first viewing. But the opening half of First Cow may test the patience of some viewers.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: First Cow makes a significant emotional impression with a modest filmmaking style. This story of two men scratching for a place in the world is a likable and affecting story of friendship and unfulfilled dreams.
Episode: #830 (December 13, 2020)