Review: First Cow

Kelly Reichardt is a darling of the indie scene, having directed critically-acclaimed, limited-release features such as Night Moves and Certain Women. This string of success has hyped interest in her newest picture, which possesses a muted tone when compared to its contemporaries, but is nonetheless interesting.

In frontier-era America, a reticent traveller known as Cookie (John Magaro) has befriended a Chinese migrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) following a chance encounter in the forests of Oregon. Both men have inhabited a riverside settlement where the buildings are rudimentary and industry is lacking, an environment that seems unappealing to most; but to the entrepreneurial mind of King-Lu, it’s a lucrative business opportunity.

After much consideration as to which of his ideas would work best, King-Lu decides to found a bakery in the community, hoping to utilise Cookie’s culinary skills to sell miniature sweetcakes. Ingredients for the cakes are expensive and scarce, so the friends collect what’s needed through crafty measures – this includes the key ingredient of milk, which is freely sourced from the town’s only cow without the owner’s knowledge, or approval.

Antipodean theatregoers have had quite the wait for First Cow, with the film having made its world premiere back in 2019, and screened virtually at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival before finally attaining a cinematic release in Australia just this week. During this wait, First Cow has amassed significant praise overseas, with some critics going as far to claim the picture was snubbed at the recent Academy Awards, an argument that’s not without merit.

Among the noteworthy aspects of First Cow is the casting, with the film being led by two relative unknowns in the entertainment industry. Magaro offers humility and tenderness to his portrayal of Cookie, doing well to convey the protagonist’s underlying strength; complementing him is Sino-British actor Lee, whose friendly, open demeanour adds wonderfully to King-Lu’s wit and ingenuity. Refreshingly, both actors perform with an assuredness that belies their rather thin filmographies.

The stars of First Cow: Orion Lee (left) and John Magaro

What’s most interesting about the characterisations of Cookie and King-Lu is how heavily they contrast with their surroundings. Hyper-machoism abounds in First Cow, with the majority of men antagonising each other into conflict and the only source of entertainment being fisticuffs between the locals. Neither Cookie nor King-Lu succumb to these ways of barbarism, always carrying themselves with a quietness and warmth regardless of who they encounter – in other words, the kind of masculinity that more men should adhere to.

The grace of the two protagonists is reflected in their surroundings, with the lush, dense forests of Oregon having been beautifully captured by Christopher Blauvelt in a 4:3 frame; and in the soundtrack too, with the acoustic compositions of William Tyler being a soothing addition to First Cow’s ambience. A further example of the picture’s desire to be understated is the editing, handled by Reichardt herself, which ensures that events move along at a steady, unhurried pace.

Welcome though the serenity of First Cow is, there are occasions when Reichardt’s picture feels a tad too serene, a problem that is particularly evident in the third act – even when problems for Cookie and King-Lu are at their most dire, there’s no palpable threat or sense of dread to be felt by the viewer. This issue is further magnified by the slow pacing, which serves to dullen the suspense and stretches a simple tale to an overlong length of two hours.

Although the restrained tone doesn’t always work in its favour, First Cow is a cathartic film that offers fascinating insights about American history and masculinity. More than that, it’s an ode to the gentler souls of the world, demonstrating the values of kindness and friendship in the face of adversity.

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