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VOD Review: First Cow

July 10, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Acclaimed independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, one of cinema’s finest surveyors of Americana, delivers one of her finest works yet with First Cow, a film that works as both a bracing frontier drama exploring themes of greed and early capitalism, and as a compelling, understated character study.

The film, which had the misfortune of opening back in March just before movie theatres were forced to close and is now being released digitally, is loosely adapted from a 2004 novel called The Half-Life by Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with her.

The story is set in Oregon Territory in the early 19th century, and follows a mild-mannered cook who goes by the nickname Cookie (John Magaro). Cookie is travelling with a rugged group of fur trappers, but starts to break away from the group when he meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is on the run. The two of them become close friends, and together they hatch a risky moneymaking scheme that involves stealing milk from the first and only cow in the territory, which belongs to a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones).

The characters of Cookie and King Lu are beautifully performed by Magaro and Lee, with the former able to say so much through few words, and the latter brilliantly portraying the hardscrabble resilience of his immigrant character whose self-sufficient grifter spirit seems indicative of the so-called American Dream. The bond that forms between the two men is tender and touching. A special mention must also be given to the titular cow, a bovine named Eve who provides a calm, steady presence in the film.

The observational qualities of Reichardt’s work that have made her such a unique and vital voice in the indie film world are on full display in First Cow. She is a master at delivering these sorts of understated character studies, but she is also a master at organically building tension, and there is genuine suspense allowed to build up in the film’s second half. Reichardt, who also edited the film herself, finds a very unique rhythm, with a pace that both feels relaxed and steadily builds in tension as it goes along, keeping us fully engaged throughout the two hour running time.

The film itself in many ways feels like a culmination of Reichardt’s style and themes, combining the beautifully observed nuances of male friendship that were also found in her early 2006 masterwork Old Joy, with the period authenticity of her 2014 slow-burn Western Meek’s Cutoff, as well as the simmering suspense of her masterful 2014 eco thriller Night Moves. It’s also worth noting that, on all three of those films, along with her 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt shared writing credits with Raymond.

It’s a testament to Reichardt’s sure touch as a filmmaker that First Cow, which on the surface appears like a quiet period piece, becomes something that feels both moving and relevant. Christopher Blauvelt’s gorgeous cinematography, framed within a square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, helps to capture both the beauty and threat of the untamed Pacific Northwest wilderness that the film almost entirely unfolds in.

The film tells a simple yet powerful allegorical story, that is infused with both great drama and even moments of gentle humour, bookended by stunning opening and closing scenes that take on a haunting quality. This is a completely naturalistic character piece that, while set a couple of centuries ago, will surely be remembered as one of the very best movies of 2020.

First Cow is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms, as well as in select theatres where allowed. It’s distributed in Canada by MK2 Mile End.

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