If you’ve heard of the slow cinema movement, Kelly Reichardt could be considered its high priest. Her exacting, often dramatically beautiful films are the antithesis of, say, modern superhero movies. Often set on the American frontier, her work features long static shots and minimal dialogue. And Reichart’s new film, First Cow, follows much the same template.
The term “lyrical” doesn’t really describe a Reichardt film, particularly given their often gritty settings. Maybe mesmerising would be a better term. To enter Reichardt’s world is to have to give over to a different set of rhythms. It’s almost like floating in water. And you either like that or you don’t. I happen to quite enjoy it, but I recognise many won’t.
First Cow opens in enigmatic style, before heading back to the early 1850s in the wild Oregon Territory. A group of fur traders are making their way to a trading post. They’re a fractious bunch, and one takes a particular dislike to Cookie (John Magaro) – whose real name is Figowitz – apparently over the lack of food he’s supposed to scavenge for the band. One night in the wilderness, Cookie discovers a naked Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee). He’s running from ruthless Russian trappers. Cookie takes pity and helps King-Lu escape.
When the group finally reach the trading post, they all go their separate ways. Much to Cookie’s surprise though, he runs into King-Lu. Seems King-Lu made a successful getaway and has set himself up with a ramshackle hut. He invites Cookie over and they bond over whisky. With nowhere else to go, Cookie decides to stay on at the hut. King-Lu soon discovers Cookie is an accomplished baker. He sees an opportunity to make some quick money. The men who come to the trading post are generally hungry and sick of hard-tack biscuits. A delicious hot cake would be just the thing. An early trial proves their immense popularity.
But there’s a problem. To make the batter, they need milk. A solution however emerges in the form of a cow. It’s the first cow in the territory and it belongs to the trading post’s boss, known as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie and King-Lu sneak into the Chief Factor’s yard each night to milk the cow. Their little business hums along. But how long will it take before the Chief Factor – who loves Cookie’s cakes – puts two and two together.
As you’ve probably gathered, First Cow doesn’t speed along. But when things pick up in the third act, it’s gripping cinema. Reichardt puts her signature directorial style on the piece, creating some amazing images. She also co-wrote the screenplay and edited the film. Jonathan Raymond collaborated on the script, which adapts his own novel The Half-Life. Christopher Blauvelt (Mid90s) provides the gorgeous cinematography, and William Tyler adds the minimalist score.
Although a number of characters drift in and out of the film, it becomes essentially a two-hander. John Magaro (Overlord) is quietly brilliant as the taciturn Cookie. Given the lack of dialogue, Magaro has to do a lot physically, and delivers a stunning performance as a result. Orion Lee (Justice League) matches him as the more effusive King-Lu. Toby Jones (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) gives his usual excellent turn as the Chief Factor, while Scott Shepherd (The Report) lends solid support as his military guest.
First Cow is a niche film for niche audiences – hence its limited release here. But if you can get past the slowness, you can bask in two hours of beautiful, compelling cinema.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television