Kelly Reichardt makes slow, quiet films. With such titles as Old Joy, Wendy And Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women, the mood may seem slightly dull, but the conflicts rage under the surface. Her latest, and I think, best film so far, First Cow, may hold to her established aesthetic, yet it’s also a screw-tightening thriller in its own hushed way.
The film, which Reichardt co-wrote with Jon Raymond, upon whose novel, The Half Life it was based, opens with a brief modern day prologue. A woman (Alia Shawkat, criminally underused) and her dog happen upon an unusual sight in the woods. Flashing back to the late 19th century Pacific Northwest, we meet Cookie (John Magaro), a trained chef traveling with a group of abusive fur traders. One night, he happens upon a naked man in the forest named King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run from a group of Russians. They strike up a sweet friendship and decide to go into business together selling “oily cakes” (a type of fried doughnut) to the traders in their muddy market. News eventually comes that the wealthiest man in town, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has imported a cow, the first in the area. Sensing opportunity, Cookie and King-Lu steal milk from Factor’s cow at night in order to make better doughnuts. With their business booming as they discuss dreams of moving to San Francisco (called Saint Francisco here), the threat of getting caught looms over their capitalistic enterprise.
Throughout, Magaro and Lee give muted, naturalistic performances. While Cookie concentrates on his culinary skills, King-Lu subtly pushes him to obtain more milk and make more money. The game becomes dangerous when Chief Factor hires Cookie to make a clafoutis for him, upping the danger that his palate will notice the presence of milk in the recipe. With only one cow in the village, the mystery would not hold up to scrutiny. Jones excels in his scenes, always leaving the audience to wonder how much he knows. In a chilling speech, he espouses the need to kill people in order to strike fear in everyone else. I also enjoyed watching Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), who usually gives comic performances, doing a great job as one of the villainous elite. First Cow’s connections to how the modern day 1% virtually control the masses comes through loud and clear. That such a beautiful friendship can endure through the hardships of wild west corporate power gives the film a gorgeous sense of longing for a better life.
Shot in a square Academy ratio by Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Christopher Blauvelt, First Cow finds beauty in the languor of its images. Instead of pushing for stunning imagery, everything feels real in a low key way. Patience gets rewarded by this oddly immersive film. A case could be made that Cookie and King-Lu feel like lovers, but the friendship at the heart of the story renders such ideas irrelevant.
It feels impossible to watch First Cow without thinking of Robert Altman’s 1971 masterpiece McCabe And Mrs. Miller. With both set around the same time and in the same geographical region, they explore the perils of trying to make a living with those more rich and powerful serving as menaces. We also get to see the late René Auberjonois in one of his first and last performances with these films. Both also feature unusual, somewhat unclassifiable pairings and the constant threat of violence. As King-Lu says to Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time can we can take it on our own terms.” I can’t recommend enough watching both as a richly satisfying double feature.
First Cow’s ending may feel abrupt and unresolved, but Reichardt delivers everything you need to piece it all together. Take a break from the audio and visual assaults of recent cinema and bask in this film’s wonderfully rendered look at two people making a connection in a harsh, brutal world. At this time in history, many of us have slowed down our lives, paying attention to rhythms which may have gone unnoticed before. I think it’s a perfect moment to watch a film like this. Some may call First Cow boring, but I found it to be among the best films of 2020 so far.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
First Cow is available to rent or purchase now from A24 on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, VUDU, Fandango, redbox and Xbox.