First Cow review – a skillfully patient film

By M.N. Miller
Published: July 13, 2020
First Cow review - a skillfully patient film


First Cow is an udderly entertaining film.

Based on director Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist film history, you might think she grew up in the rural backwoods of Northern Pennsylvania. The Miami, Florida’s native’s filmography has been nothing close to flashy, and you won’t find a pastel color in any of her palettes. You won’t find a social media Instagram character in the bunch either. She refreshingly focuses on working-class character-driven stories with dreary skies and rustic settings. Her latest film, First Cow, premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and had a very brief theatrical run before this year’s shutdown. It has finally arrived on premium video on demand, and I’m here to say it’s an… “utterly” entertaining film.

Reichardt wrote the script that focuses on two wayward travelers whose dreams grow from finding protein for a meal to a simple shack with a roof over their heads and attempting to make their fortune. John Magaro (The Big Short and in the upcoming The Many Saints of Newark) plays Cookie Figowitz, a cook who has been indentured to a band of unforgiving beaver hunters trying to make a profit off fur in the lusciously green northwest territory. When out on the hunt for the group’s dinner, which amounted to a handful of mushrooms, he encounters King-Lu (Warrior‘s Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from some Russian thugs, waiting them out by hiding in the woods. Cookie shows some mercy for him, letting him sleep in his tent, and he leaves quietly the next morning. They run into each other by chance a few years later and spark a friendship to build a future with one honey glazed baked good at a time. The only way they can do it is to access the milk of a cow owned by the area’s wealthy landowner, Chief Factor (Infamous’ Toby Jones).

Reichardt’s First Cow has a relaxed feel and a pace about it that’s good for the soul. Her script is remarkable in the sense of how the film is so skillfully patient and its refusal to force a single note is refreshing. This is the film’s greatest gift, which is unusual, but makes the last hour significantly entertaining as it plants the seeds that make the second half breeze by. The one caveat is that this is also can be to First Cow‘s detriment, and you can argue that it can make the film slightly too long for its own good.

That, though, is a minor point— the film’s quiet, thoughtful look at the friendship of two unlikely people, moving in the way two outcasts’ loneliness and a simple gesture of kindness can bring people together. When you couple that with its rich cinematography and one of the year’s best performances from Magaro, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a satisfying drama that you can sink your teeth into.

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