#REVIEW: “FIRST COW”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
For just under a year, I have been hearing about First Cow. The Film, from acclaimed Writer/Director Kelly Reichardt, screened at last fall’s Telluride and New York Film Festivals, landed at Berlin in February and then was released theatrically in March – just as COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Like every other film, it was quickly-pulled, but the conversation about First Cow kept going online (including the simultaneously amusing and perplexing cow memes). And now four months later, the rest of us can finally find out what all the chatter was about.
After a short prologue, we meet Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) picking wild mushrooms in the forest. He is a cook travelling with fur trappers in 19th Century Oregon Territory and does not really fit in with any of them. By chance, he meets King Lu (Orion Lee) and the pair have an instant connection. Sometime later, Cookie and King connect again and decide to start a business together – making biscuits from milk they happen to be stealing from the wealthy Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) new Cow.
That may not be much to go on, but that may be the entire point of First Cow. Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond have designed a deliberately lo-fi, low-stakes film about friendship and the American Dream. Cookie and King are both soft spoken, and Reichardt’s camera lingers on their every move and thought. The way she moves the Film softly from one scene to another with little to no care about the pacing may infuriate or downright bore some viewers. But Reichardt does not care. She just uses each of these laboured moments to her advantage, allowing the camera to say things about the characters and the settings that no one even attempts to speak. She is very in-tune and comfortable within the “old-timey” setting (with the added touch of shooting the entire Film in the full frame 1:37.1 aspect ratio with minimal artificial lighting) and it shows in how confident the Film feels even at its most glacial.
While Magaro and Lee are both terrific in their roles, the real stars of the Film are the Production Design and the Cow herself. First Cow is stunningly-realized from top to bottom, with each progressive scene looking more and more like an art masterwork. The Film mainly takes place primarily outdoors, and somehow Reichardt and her team managed to find entire swaths of land that appear to be untouched by human interference. Each moment looks, feels and practically smells as if it is taking place in the 19th century. The work here is very distinct and much more intimate that I ever could have imagined. And as for the Cow, well she steals every scene she appears in. She is the focus whether intentional or not, and Cookie’s conversations with her are easily the best parts of the Film.
The pacing may be a bit slow, but First Cow is a sumptuous visual feast that did not deserve to miss finding an audience. It is beautifully- made, wonderfully-written and packs terrific performances from its two leads. It knows what it is and makes no qualms about it. And if you are willing to give it a chance, you may be in for an intimate experience unlike any other you might find in 2020.
FIRST COW is available Digitally and On-Demand via MK2|Mile End on Friday, July 10, 2020.