Review: First Cow

Year: 2020
Runtime: 124 Minutes
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Kelly Reichardt (screenplay by), Jonathan Raymond (screenplay by), Jonathan Raymond (based on the novel by)
Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt has gained quite some notoriety over her career, so much so that Bong Joon-Ho even denotes her as one of his heroes, and her latest film, “First Cow”, gives audiences a unique Western adventure filled with friendship, character, and a cow.

Set in Oregon during the 19th Century, the film follows two scavengers – a skilled but secluded cook named Cookie (John Magaro) and an opportunistic Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee). Although they meet on strange terms, the two grow a special friendship as they look to make a name for themselves. However, when an incredibly wealthy man named Chief Factor (Toby Jones) purchases and brings the first cow to the area, the two see an opportunity to gain a wealth of their own. So, as they sneakily steal milk from under Factor’s nose, Cookie and Lu make a name for themselves by cooking baked goods that eventually gets them unwanted attention.

It’s impressive to see how Reichardt immerses viewers into the Oregon wilderness and lifestyle through not only sights and sounds, but also actions. The Oregon Western Front has never looked so gorgeous with the frame feeling so colorful and fresh that you almost want to take a whiff of fresh air. There’s a great amount of silence use to allow the wind and birds to create a strong atmosphere. Even the score from Wiliam Tyler evokes these comforting Western vibes that even reminded me of video games like “Harvest Moon” and it’s a perfect backdrop to the film’s central story about friendship and finding your own way.

first cow lee
John Magaro and Orion Lee in First Cow (2019) © Allyson Riggs/A24

“It’s impressive to see how Reichardt immerses viewers into the Oregon wilderness and lifestyle through not only sights and sounds, but also actions. The Oregon Western Front has never looked so gorgeous.”

Where Reichardt really sucks you in though is through the actions as seeing people do things in an old way takes you back to that time. With things like Cookie actually scratching a stick of cinnamon onto his oily cakes, Cookie using a giant net to catch fish in the river, and him collecting mushrooms as he walks through the forest it’s hard not find yourself immersed into the environment and time. There’s even a moment where someone is playing a jaw-harp, yes, I had to look up what it’s called, and it just gives you those authentic Western adventure vibes that is so rare in film today.

Admittedly, Reichardt’s desire to showcase every little detail can kind of drag the pace down when she cuts to an irrelevant character or lingers on a great looking background shot for too long. However, there’s such a careful attention to detail that shouldn’t go unnoticed and is very effective in making you invested into every moment in the story.

“Magaro and Lee are absolutely immaculate throughout and even with their characters having different mindsets and passions about they do, they’re chemistry and genuine care for one another is what constantly brings them together.”

Even the animals in this film look absolutely incredible and seeing more woodland critter like multi-colored salamanders and brightly colored owls creates a strong atmosphere. Nothing compares to how Reichhardt captures the film’s titular cow, which A24 has named Eve, as there’s a pristine look to her that makes viewers understand why she is such a prized possession of this area. She’s a great central component to the film’s main themes about class and make something from nothing as well as key ingredient to what makes Cookie and Lu such strong characters.

first cow
John Magaro in First Cow (2019) © Allyson Riggs/A24

Magaro and Lee are absolutely immaculate throughout and even with their characters having different mindsets and passions about they do, they’re chemistry and genuine care for one another is what constantly brings them together. For most of the film, they act as business partners trying to keep their personal interests and goals in mind, but by the end, you fully recognize the powerful friendship they forge. Their story of making something of themselves even though they don’t have much makes “First Cow” a true underdog story that anyone can get behind. At first the way Reichardt deals with how their journey ends was a little perplexing to me, but it’s heavily grown on me because of how heartfelt and positive it is and it’s incredibly touching because it symbolizes how strong their bond really is.

toby
Toby Jones in First Cow (2019) © Allyson Riggs/A24

Their eventual interactions with the wealthy and ignorant Factor also flesh out some the film’s themes dealing with class. It actually evokes some elements of “Parasite”, which makes sense because Joon-Ho is so inspired by her, with how Lu and Cookie think his riches have made him blind to more working-class people like them. Lu’s comments about making history, business, and how hard life is for the poor working man are actually incredibly interesting and made even better through Lee’s performance. Even the way Eve the cow is treated is a strong way to show the mentalities and ideals of the differing classes as Factor treats her like another object of his and Cookie treats her genuine care as he talks to her when he’s milking her.

Reichardt’s “First Cow” is a strong start to a new year and decade for A24 and a genuinely heartwarming and thought-provoking experience that leaves you misty-eyed with how it envelopes into nature and true friendship.

4.5 stars

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