First Cow (2019)
September 22, 2020 9:32 AM - Subscribe

A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business.

Two travelers, on the run from a band of vengeful hunters in the 1820s Northwest, dream of striking it rich -- but their tenuous plan to make their fortune on the frontier comes to rely on the secret use of a landowner's prized dairy cow.

Michael Phillips: I’ve said this before about Reichardt’s films, and for whatever reason I feel the need to say it again. “First Cow” will strike some viewers as too little in terms of dramatic machinery. Whatever. The movie isn’t an oily cake, meant for a quick gulp and repeat business. It is, however, perfectly seasoned and finally very moving. Like Debra Granik’s recent “Leave No Trace,” also shot in Oregon, “First Cow” responds to the forests and streams traveled by these eccentric, memorable characters as if they, too, deserved a storytelling advocate.

Ann Hornaday: Accompanied by a gentle guitar and mandolin score by William Tyler, “First Cow” isn’t a happy movie — in fact, it’s often brutal, and the present-day image that bookends the story suggests it won’t have an optimistic ending. Still, nestled within Reichardt’s jaundiced portrait of greed, racism and nativism at its most dishonest and chauvinistic, Cookie and King Lu’s friendship stands as a reminder that America’s most pitiless trajectory didn’t necessarily have to be that way. As a parable of Bressonian purity, “First Cow” offers a clear-eyed assessment of how we got here; as a magnificent, moving example of Reichardt’s uncompromising vision, it doesn’t just deliver a critique, but transcendence.

Monica Reid: Reichardt is painstaking in making every detail of her films just right, and First Cow is no exception. She once again uses cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who has worked with the director on several previous films. He always achieves the sense of close but impartial observation that her films require, and has the knack for quietly showcasing the images and events that need to stand out, in this case including the absurd stateliness of the newly arrived cow being transported by barge to its new home, or the charged first meeting of the two main characters. Blauvelt’s camera work gives the necessary significance to the most minor action or object, which works perfectly with this script. The look of the film is augmented by a dreamy folk music-inspired score by novice composer William Tyler, and carefully naturalistic set design.

The casting is excellent, as usual for a Reichardt film. The two leads are sympathetic and have perfect chemistry; Toby Jones is casually despotic and provides the requisite hint of menace; Lily Gladstone as his wife appears dutiful but hints at having contrary opinions. The late Rene Auberjonois is unrecognisable and eccentric as the mysterious and seemingly mad Man With Raven, who appears to act as a sort of incoherent oracle, responding cryptically to the characters’ circumstances and fate. Even the minor and unnamed characters, such as the belligerent trappers or the enigmatically watchful native people, are all compelling and contribute to the film’s unique atmosphere. It all adds up to another Reichardt success and one of the must-see films of the year.

posted by Carillon (5 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As a bonus! The oily-cakes recipe.
posted by Carillon at 9:35 AM on September 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Interesting choice to go with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and some neat use of colours and framing to bring it down to portrait aspect at times. I liked the colours too, almost a dreamlike but real quality. Memories of summers past as a kid before discovering quality sunglasses.

A slower more introspective film, Cookie picking chanterelles was an amuse bouche, meeting King-Lu was an appetizer, but Cookie being self conscious about his new(er) boots hooked me.

Was not expecting it to be a heist movie. Well played. Loved the back and forth planning involved in making a plan for making the first doughnut.

IMDB trivia: "Slow Elk" was suggested as an alternate title, as that's how cattle were known to Oregon's First People.

If true, first nations calling European cattle "slow elk" amuses me greatly.
posted by porpoise at 6:04 PM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Reichardt used the same aspect ratio on Meek's Cutoff and it seems wholly appropriate to this story as well.

She's one of the small number of directors whose every shot and decision I feel like I understand. I really appreciate her focus on the environments in which her characters operate and her attention to what happens at the margins and the in-between spaces of their stories.

First Cow was the last movie I saw in a theater just before Covid lockdown, and I worry that it may mark an end to movies of this scale having a theatrical release at all.
posted by theory at 5:12 PM on September 30, 2020

I loved this movie but that's not how you harvest chanterelles, and those fungi in the film were some damn ripe chanterelles. You cut them at the base lest you pull out all the mycelium, guaranteeing you won't find them there again next year. Cookie would have known that. It's like cutting down an apple tree to harvest an apple.

That very last scene. Cookie isn't breathing. King Lu takes four breaths and Cookie's chest is flat through the whole thing. Fuck. I hope King Lu makes it big in San Francisco.
posted by Stanczyk at 5:34 PM on November 9, 2020

My SO decided that they are both having a nice nap and then they get up and go to SF together and little did they know there were two bodies buried under where they briefly rested.
posted by fleacircus at 9:38 AM on December 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

« Older Podcast: Rude Tales of Magic: ...   |  The Third Day: Friday — The Fa... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments