James Jay Edwards reviews First Cow, a new movie by Kelly Reichardt that upends the traditional western and tells a heartfelt story about a peculiar friendship set in 1800s Oregon.
Including First Cow, writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women) has made seven feature films. And five of them have been set in the Pacific Northwest. Also including the unconventional western First Cow.
Set in the 1800s, First Cow is about a baker named Cookie Figowitz (The Big Short’s John Magaro) who is stuck travelling with a group of ungrateful fur trappers through the Oregon territory. While out foraging for something with which to feed his group, Cookie comes across a hiding Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee from Narcopolis) and the two strike up a peculiar friendship. Once they get to a trading post, Cookie admits to his new pal that he aspires to have his own bakery, and King Lu learns that the cook is very good at what he does. King Lu is more business-savvy and figures that they can sell Cookie’s delicious biscuits to the masses for a tidy profit. But they need milk, and the only cow in town belongs to a rich and powerful man named Chief Factor (Toby Jones from The Hunger Games). However, the cow is left unguarded every night, so King Lu and Cookie come up with a plan.
(First Cow, theatrical release poster, A24 Films)
Kelly Reichardt co-wrote the screenplay for First Cow with Jonathan Raymond, who has not only co-written about half of Reichardt’s films with her, but also penned the novel The Half-Life upon which First Cow is based. Or, at least, First Cow is based on part of the multi-dimensional The Half-Life. Like all of Reichardt’s movies, First Cow is an exercise in subtle and intimate filmmaking that takes a simple story and wrings every ounce of modest emotion out of it.
And it’s an absolutely beautiful movie. Reichardt and longtime cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (who also shot Mid90s and Emma.) take full advantage of the breathtaking Oregon locations to pack First Cow’s 4:3 frame to the gills with scenic landscapes and lush greenery. Every shot is postcard perfect, but Reichardt’s direction goes way beyond the confines of the photographic frame. Her vision is meticulous, every moment planned and plotted, so First Cow is both visually stunning and narratively engaging.
(Orion Lee as “King Lu” and John Magaro as “Cookie” in First Cow. Credit: Allyson Riggs / A24 Films)
First Cow is a slow-moving movie, but there’s a purpose to its pacing. Sure, Reichardt is telling the story of Cookie and King Lu first and foremost, but there’s more than enough air in the plot to let the imagery sink in with the viewer. There’s nothing wasted in First Cow. Even the eye candy shots are necessary to tell the deliberately unfolding story. There is no gun fighting in the movie. Nor is there horse wrangling. There are no typical staples of the western genre anywhere, but First Cow doesn’t need them. It’s revisionist western at its most revisionist.
At the root of it all is the unique bond between Cookie and King Lu. The pair has a strong and immediate bond, one that is formed by the fact that each has been searching for someone like the other for quite some time. Their fast friendship has a quirky slapstick vibe to it, sort of like a Butch and Sundance kind of a thing, where one can tell they have a genuine affection and respect for each other, yet they are still able to joke and play around. Cookie and King Lu go through troubles, but their loyal alliance helps them come out the other side smiling as they both chase after the American Dream.
Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make movies that hit their audience in the face. She makes movies that grab it by the heart. And First Cow shows that she can do that like no one else.