2020, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 10, 2020
The observational, exacting films of Kelly Reichardt are best consumed in a movie theatre. They require patience and concentration and sensitivity to the most delicate of stimuli. Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, pings the senses with its authentic evocation of Gold Rush-era Oregon Territory – sticky with mud, rank with unwashed, bearded men. In the hushed sanctity of the movie theatre, the way the film catches and conveys the essence of wet leaves probably would have left me rapturous. Instead, at home, I luxuriated in it like the first stretch of the morning. I also paused around the 40-minute mark, took a short nap, woke up refreshed, and resumed viewing.
The opening shot sets the pace, as a fixed camera clocks a cargo ship crossing a body of water from one edge of the frame to the other, 76 seconds in total. This preamble, set in more modern times, introduces a set of buried artifacts that provide the bridge to the same woods in the 19th century. An artful bridge, to be sure, but one that nonetheless needled me – who keeps digging once they’ve figured out it’s a job for forensic archaeologists?
Back in frontier-times Oregon, a kind-hearted cook named Cookie Figowitz (Magaro) makes the acquaintance of a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Lee), who has a tough gut and a head for business. Both bullied men, they find kinship with each other – their tender rapport is the film’s winningest quality – and together they build a sneaky business stealing milk from the fort’s sole cow (see the title) and turning it into fried doughnuts that drive the fort’s residents wild – including the cow’s lawful owner, played by Toby Jones, who has no idea the part he plays in the line of assembly.
First Cow is based on the novel The Half-Life by Jon Raymond, who co-scripted with Reichardt and has been her regular collaborator on past films Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013). There’s a lot to like in their pictures, which habitually move marginalized people to center frame and are often consumed with process – the logistics of crossing a river, finding a lost dog, baking a clafoutis. But First Cow is overburdened by that preamble, which suffuses the film with a feeling of inevitability but not narrative tension, and the plot isn’t sturdy enough to fill two hours. An honorable mention, but no best in show.
First Cow is available on VOD now.