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First Cow
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by Jay Seaver

"Lovely but with its eyes wide open."
5 stars

"First Cow" was dealt an especially tough hand by 2020; it was released in theaters just a week before they started shutting down, wasn't in a position to take advantage of local independent cinemas' virtual rooms, with the studio appearing to hope for a chance to re-release it theatrically that never came, and the elongated Oscar-qualifying season must have made it seem ancient by the time nominations were due. As the sort of film that benefits from the theatrical experience in terms of both presentation and community, it had a hard time finding its audience without it, though one hopes that filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's next independent production that seems to meander while being exquisitely precise will lead people to circle back to this film, which certainly deserves the attention.

After an eyebrow-raising segment set in the present day, Reichardt introduces Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro), the cook for a group of fur trappers in 1820 Oregon who don't respect him much. He encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man hiding from the Russians after him for taking a shot at one after they killed his friend, and helps him hide. They meet again at the fort, bonding again over dreams that seem unattainable. Meanwhile, the richest man in the area (Toby Jones) has a cow delivered, and while most of the locals don't see much point in it without the bull and calf that died en route, Cookie instead sees the buttermilk biscuits he could make with her milk. King-Lu suggests surreptitiously milking it at night, and while Cookie's baked goods soon become popular with the local trappers, how do they manage when the cow's owner takes an interest?

That description suggests a bit more intrigue than the film actually offers; "Chief Factor" is not formally introduced until at least the midpoint, with much of what comes before a carefully-paced look at the Northwest and appreciating the little things in a dangerous time. Where many westerns will establish sweeping vistas, this one opens on Cookie foraging for edible mushrooms, and builds its way up to how his relatively simple biscuits become a bit of a sensation because most of the people in this small community can't avail themselves of that kind of simple pleasure - whiskey is numbing, cards can bring out the competitive worst in people, and even Factor with his fancy clothes and tidy house with servants finds himself transported. At various points Cookie and King-Lu relate their histories, and it's an interesting complement to what one sees of them: Cookie is a quiet, decent person whom one can easily see pushed out by others until he winds up in this place, without much further to go, although John Magaro plays him as having the solid core needed to survive in the early Nineteenth Century even if he's not pushy. Orion Lee, meanwhile, grasps onto how King-Lu is more self-directed and worldly, giving more thought to his ambitions. He's not phony or blustery - at least, when he's not making a sales pitch - but more active in how he looks at the world compared to Cookie. They contrast visually - Cookie's clothes are deliberately rough and layered, as befits a man who has learned not to stand out and who fears losing what he has, while King-Lu is well-groomed but not ostentatious - but work together; for all that they have become outsiders in their own ways and also handled it differently, they understand each other.

And yet, for all that the movie would seem like an ode to friendship and simple pleasures - that is certainly the film that its trailers presented - the quotation that opens the film is as much a warning as the flash-forward. A point comes when the audience thinks "oh, he's that friend", the one who is not ill-intentioned or purposefully exploitative but who can drag a person to a place where he should probably not go because he is the stronger personality. Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond (who also wrote the novel that inspired the film, The Half-Life) don't need to circle back around to say what really happened before Cookie and King-Lu met, but it's easy enough to imagine how some of the gaps could be filled in. Still, friendship is not necessarily the most dangerous thing in play; the filmmakers are not subtle about how they lay out the roles that inequalities and greed play. Cookie and King-Lu discuss the difficulties in pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps in a way that certainly feels relevant in the present without being anachronistic, while Factor and the sea captain he is entertaining (Scott Shepherd) are horrifically dispassionate about how expendable workers are in their eyes, on top of being self-deluding about how cavalier they can be about the natural sources of their wealth. The filmmakers don't exactly pivot to say that sociopathic capitalism is the real danger, but certainly recognize that you cannot tell Cookie and King-Lu's story without including it.

This all happens against a backdrop that embraces the contradictions of the story's place in history; the production designers straddle the border between the ugly mess of those who just seem to actively reject hygiene or being palatable to others and those making do with what they have, to the point where Factor's house looks fancy despite being the approximate size and shape of a middle-class home in the present-day suburbs. The land just beyond those humans' reach, though, is beautiful, something Reichardt and regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt will often emphasize by positioning the camera inside King-Lu's cabin and shooting out a window, the vibrant colors outside a contrast to the deep shade of a building, even during daytime.

As they often do, Reichardt and Blauvelt opt for a squarish Academy Ratio framing rather than the widescreen framing that has been the standard for the past sixty or seventy years, and by doing so allow the picture to seemingly sink into the back of the screen with action in the middle distance in the way wider compositions often don't. More intriguingly, that shape and the relatively still camera combines with the sparse, seemingly undirected motion in the background and simple language in a way that reminded me not so much of the traditional western and more of the 8mm or 16mm footage shot for a museum's multimedia exhibits, almost as if it is imitating that sort of sheer functionality so that the viewer will associate it with seeing unadorned history. It is not artless, of course; consider how carefully they wait until the right moment to reveal exactly what sort of risk Cookie is taking by milking Factor's cow, or how delicately all the scenes seemingly lit by moonlight are photographed.

That photography is part of why it's sad that this didn't get longer in theaters, as streaming compression can mutilate that sort of low-light work, but it's also a film that benefits from a distraction-free environment and a community of people to talk with afterward. It's a beautiful film even when it is honestly harsh, the sort of film where "art-house" is a fair description but one which understates how accessible and clear it is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34637&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/24/21 13:00:32
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  06-Mar-2020 (PG-13)
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