Film Review: ‘First Cow’ Is A Different Kind Of Western

Mike Wass | July 22, 2020 3:30 pm
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In some ways, First Cow is an anti-western. Instead of obsessing over the violence that defines the genre, director Kelly Reichardt gives us a glimpse of frontier life between the gun fights, bank robberies and hangings. She paints a portrait of two like-minded souls just trying to survive and enriches it with tender observations and whimsical detail. (I’m fairly certain that this is the first western with a subplot about baking). Just don’t mistake First Cow for fluff. With her unblinking eye and palpable empathy, Reichardt crafts a film with heart and heft.

At its core, First Cow is about friendship. Cookie, a soft-spoken chef, is making his way across autumnal Oregon with a group of hostile fur trappers. While on a mission to round up some chow, he stumbles across King Lu shivering naked in the grass. The Chinese immigrant is on the run and seemingly shit out of luck. However, instead of turning him in, or worse, Cookie offers the man clothes and a place to sleep. A friendship is born and they eventually share a shack at the nearest outpost.

Both men hunger for a better life and some decent food. Sick of frontier cuisine, Cookie dreams of making a biscuit. Unfortunately, he needs a little dairy and the only cow at the outpost belongs to the wealthy and somewhat dim Chief Factor. So, they hatch a plan to milk the cow in the dead of night and do a little baking. Impressed with the result, the duo decides to sell oily cakes (a riff on the humble donut) at the market and unexpectedly make a killing. Our heroes are in the money and increasingly bold about obtaining the secret ingredient.

It seems too good to be true — happy endings are rarer than fresh milk on the frontier — and fate intervenes. However, by the time the more traditional elements of the western kick in, it’s a secondary thrill to witnessing the resilience of Cookie and King Lu’s bond. As Cookie, John Magaro finds the breakout role he’s been working towards since landing small parts in Unbroken and Carol. Orion Lee is equally impressive as King Lu, exuding serious leading-man charisma.

As formidable as the actors are, and as staggeringly beautiful as Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography is, Reichardt’s direction is what elevates First Cow from great to exceptional. The composition of the film is faultless — from the seemingly unrelated opening to the full circle moment that links it to the finale, every frame of First Cow is pieced together with surgical precision. It’s what Reichardt chooses to show (kind gestures like Cookie sweeping his friend’s dirt floor) as opposed to what she leaves out (the ugliness bubbling under the surface) that makes this film so special.

Again, it’s all in the detail. The director’s use lingering long shots to convey the languid pace of frontier life — not to mention her preference for partially-obstructed camera angles to heighten the sense of intimacy — is inspired. As much as I loved Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt’s first western), First Cow is the better film. It’s richer, more poetic and absolutely resolute in its stance that kindness and goodwill were as much a part of frontier life as hate and ruthlessness.

Rating: 4.5/5

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