First Cow, 2019.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Clayton Nemrow, Todd A. Robinson, Alia Shawkat, René Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Lily Gladstone, Gary Farmer, Ted Rooney, and Scott Shepherd.
A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune; soon the two collaborate on a successful business.
For anyone not up to speed with the Academy Awards, Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Joker, except he didn’t really talk about the movie during his speech, instead choosing to use his platform to passionately talk about animal rights which included a bit on human beings milking cows for their own pleasure. Now, First Cow takes place in the 19th century so certain comparisons between these two situations don’t work, but writer and director Kelly Reichardt (returning to familiar territory here having made Meek’s Cutoff, another loose novel adaptation from Jonathan Raymond) never lets the titular cow leave the focus of the frame when she is being milked by the pair of on-the-run individuals joining forces to pull off a salesman scheme involving the milk.
John Magaro’s Cookie is the cook of the operation (duh) but also the one tasked with sneaking over to the outside perimeter of a wealthy man’s cow (the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest) to stealthily extract some of its fluids incredibly useful for baking oily cakes to sell to less fortunate locals at a high price that know no better. Cookie is both soothing and talkative towards the cow, but again, it’s the camera (it’s also worth noting that the film is presented in a 4:3 ratio to better direct audience eyes towards these characters) that shoves the cow’s face right into the viewer, and it’s almost impossible not to think about the progression of animal rights, the dichotomy between past and present, and whether or not celebrities such as Joaquin Phoenix actually have a point or if they are just talking crazy.
There is also a valid point that I’m thinking too deeply into this context as someone with a vegan mother that listens about the suffering of cows on a daily basis, but if the cow was just an object for obtaining milk with no personality or soul, and if we were never intended to contemplate such things, it’s doubtful that Kelly Reichardt would film things the way they are. There is also something to be said about humane approaches towards milking, as there is a very telling moment where the jig is about to be blown, especially as the cow shows more affection to Cookie than it does its own owner (an oblivious and smug Toby Jones that fails to comprehend the possibility of anyone stealing from him).
Adorableness of the cow aside, First Cow is also a touching story of friendship involving a fur trapper guide (who notably tries to avoid hurting animals at all costs) and the Chinese immigrant business experienced friend he makes along the way (seeking refuge from Russians he has apparently entered a squabble with). Together, they sort of chase the American dream before it was ever such a thing; before the Pacific Northwest has developed enough to the point where one can no longer get away with making a fortune off simple biscuits featuring milk as the key ingredient. It’s also a bond that develops slowly, and sometimes painfully slow, but for anyone familiar with the filmography of Kelly Reichardt such pacing will feel right at home. The intimate aspect ratio naturally and allows for more attention to detail when it comes to some of the more mundane tasks and period piece touches, although occasionally there is a sensation for the narrative to hurry itself up just a tad (it’s at least 45 minutes before the pals first encounter the cow).
Gentleness doesn’t just come in the form of the way Cookie and King Lu (Orion Lee) treat one another with brotherly love or the sweet-natured and respectful approach to milking the cow, but rather part of the film’s atmosphere. If anything, First Cow is a Western where the strangest thing about the movie is that it has a bar fight at all (to be fair, it’s played for comedic effect and definitely works), and something to make one ponder just how far romanticized the genre has gotten. Maybe these simpler times actually were much more simple and less violent/bloodsoaked than we like to fantasize about. Regardless, Kelly Reichart’s creative decision to imbue everything with affable humanity with a kind of friendship at the center is nothing short of beautiful. It’s also worth mentioning that there is a modern-day prologue connected to the aftermath of the cow milking master plan, and like everything else here it’s highly contemplative regarding the stories told of the early American frontier. Yet it’s also a tale of the American frontier with ties to the here and now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com