“First Cow” Breezes Through the West with Peace and Patience

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s latest is a kindhearted storybook of a film that gracefully balances the sights, sounds, and textures of pre-Gold Rush Oregon.


As King-Lu (Orion Lee) takes Cookie (John Magaro) to his hut, he starts preparing a fire. The sound of the axe hitting wood continues at a rhythmic pace and the woodland ambiance, tapered to an almost therapeutic constant, cushions each blow. Then, as the camera rotates to its right, Cookie grabs a blanket. He stands in the doorway and whips it back and forth. The air crashes around it. The wood continues to bonk. The walls hold against the Oregon breeze and the camera, snugly within a makeshift cave of dust and dampness, views both men in one frame and their own respective prosceniums.

There’s a constant push-pull between flatness and dynamism in First Cow, not least of which is one the pull between past and present. That past, firstly, begins in the beginning. A woman (Alia Shawkat) walks among the current-day forests of the Pacific Northwest when her dog comes across something. And then she uncovers it: a human skeleton lying at peace in a shallow grave. It’s then that the movie goes 200 years in the past.

The chances are this skeleton belonged to Cookie who, in his time, was a small-time chef and loner hoping for some financial security. He’s come all the way out from Maryland to score some money with a team of fur trappers, but not much has come of that. But, it’s when he makes the acquaintance of King-Lu that the two strike up a bond. Granted, it isn’t anything monetary—at least at first. They spend time alone together and King-Lu, who Cookie initially mistakes as being Native American, provides some insight into his Chinese heritage at his volition only.

For the most part, the dynamic is as sweet as can be. The two even start a small business of making biscuits and selling them to the local workers. It gets even better, though, when a cow shows up to the area, her milk rich and plentiful. The pair starts adding it to their biscuits; profits start to pick up. The cow is almost like a 1800s era fountain of youth (assuming youth is unpasteurized and high in calcium). The main wrinkle, however, is that she belongs to a local landowner known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones).

It’s a simple story that knows itself to be simple, and it’s all for the better. And even better yet, director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt captures it with the tenderness of a children’s storybook and the trust of a well-rounded teacher. There’s no need to rush or jazz up scenes, as she knows the audience can—and will—find the action in what others may dismiss as inactive.

Suffice it to say the technical choices support this too: the sights, the sounds, the touch that accompanies it all. Reichardt again reteams with regular DP Christopher Blauvelt as the two capture each damp interior in 1.37 : 1 on 35mm film. Keen attention to color grading and the pair’s balance of contrast and desaturation lets locations moisten up or dry out as they so choose. But far from least is the sound work: beautifully subdued throughout, it often pushes First Cow into the synesthetic.

Domesticated and wild in equal measure, this slow breeze of a film has kindness and tactility hanging from almost its every crumb. Even with a few pacing issues, it’d be a shame to waste it.

And yet at the heart is the script. The tale, adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from the latter’s novel The Half Life, aims not so much to dissect its financial themes as it is to observe them. It doesn’t shy away from the threats against their brotherhood and doesn’t dull them either. Instead, it lets the wind blow between them, allowing the viewer to see what dynamics shake and when. For all of the storybook comparisons, what’s possibly the most striking facet here is the movie’s pop-up construction.

Now, that isn’t to say that it yearns for attention—far from that. First Cow pushes and pulls the past from present as much as it does in its formal composition as it does in its arcs. The masculine bond between King-Lu and Cookie benefits from the director’s blend of iconography and intimacy. It’s no coincidence either that such a brotherhood appears even deeper when compared to Chief Factor’s impulses, which tie a rope between the colonialist and capitalist.

Other filmmakers may have focused on the foil between the leads in order to find a human center. Reichardt, however, doesn’t: she approaches the men as hopeful, holistic, symbiotic enough at times to teeter towards romance. Domesticated and wild in equal measure, this slow breeze of a film has kindness and tactility hanging from almost its every crumb. Even with a few pacing issues, it’d be a shame to waste it.

First Cow is currently in limited release and hoofs into more cities this weekend.

First Cow Trailer:

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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