Synopsis – 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.
My Take – Every year, there is always one particular film which just get buried amidst the number of new releases despite riding a wave of positive reception and a studio like A24 attached to it. Such is the case of this latest film from director Kelly Reichardt, America’s foremost chronicler of small stories rooted in meticulously-crafted geographical expanses, which at the start of the year, following its successful run at international film festivals, was already being crowned as the best film of 2020.
However, as its release rollout began in early March, the COVID-19 lockdowns soon shuttered theaters, leaving many film buffs reading a set of positive reviews for a film they couldn’t watch that is until it was quietly released on VOD platforms in July without any fanfare.
And now by bagging the Best Film award at the 2020 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and by materializing in many critic’s top 10 list, director Reichardt‘s quiet and understated drama has reappeared in the light.
Personally, while I wouldn’t rank it among A24‘s best, especially in comparison to their stellar catalog, I do consider it deserving of attention and the showing of praise.
Based on the novel The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond, who himself adapted the novel for the screen along with director Reichardt, the film takes an already simple story line and further simplifies it by adapting only a portion of the actual novel and tightening the focus, resulting in a beautifully minimalist story with the fundamental theme of friendship, along with a touch of the caper genre and a sprinkling of buddy comedy.
However, like director Reichardt’s previous films, it is dreadfully slow-paced and introspective, focusing intently on the inner lives of the characters rather than on the action, making the hopes, dreams, and relationships between the characters the main source of drama. Her films require the viewer’s attention, and patience with the leisurely pace and attention to minor detail. A patience which is rewarded in the form of this slow-burn heart-breaker.
Set in 1820 Oregon territory, the story follows Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), but everyone calls him Cookie, just because he cooks. Under the employment of a group of beaver trappers heading to Fort Tillicum, one night, Cookie comes across King Lu (Orion Lee), a cold and naked Chinese man pursued by Russians after an altercation. But rather than sounding an alarm, Cookie gives him a blanket and hides him, thus facilitating his escape.
Sometime later, Cookie sets up camp outside the Royal West Pacific Trading Post, and wanders through small gatherings of solemn Indians and Caucasian men who make fun of his polished boots, and bumps into King, who in order to show his gratitude invites him to stay in his humble shack, and share his bottle of liquor.
However their lives get interesting when they hit on a bizarre but simple business scheme when Cookie spots a cow nearby, the only such thing in the entire territory, owned by local rich guy Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Determined to fund their dreams of opening a hotel and bakery in San Francisco, the two decide to steal the milk from the cow at night and use it to make donuts-like treats that they dub oily cakes. Soon they have caught the attention of the entire town including the Chief Factor himself.
What follows is deceptively simple, sweet and down-to-earth, that it could have been pulled from the pages of a middle aged picture book, but what’s impressive is how director Reichardt builds upon that apparent simplicity. Along with Raymond, she strips his story down to its skeletal essence, combining characters, condensing the geographic scope to attune us to a time of quiet and less hurried way of life. Her latest drama of struggle and communion is almost a minimalist buddy comedy, built on the rapport between the soft-spoken baker and his quixotic partner.
Without a doubt, Cookie and King’s connection is genuinely heartwarming. Director Reichardt depicts many of their misadventures (including a mission that involves making a clafoutis for the Chief Factor and his upper-crust guests) with a light comic touch, which turns riveting as the stakes get higher for the pair’s baking operation. Cookie even occasionally tells jokes, like “do you know what side of a tree has the most branches? The outside.”
Here, director Reichardt makes no moral judgement on Cookie and King Lu for stealing, rather outlining the idea that in America, those who have resources will ensure that no one else has access to their goods, even if the population of an area is small and overtly impoverished. In fact, the film argues that to steal is the only viable alternative to living in poverty. No amount of gumption or bootstrap ideology can change the simple fact that in America, the dream is more of an illusion.
The film is funny in the most earnest way. For example, when the titular cow rolls into town, it does so via raft. Director Reichardt lets the scene play out in almost real-time, as everyone watches, mouths agape. The cow attempts a regal stillness that only amplifies how absurd it looks to see a cow on a raft.
The action plays out mostly in ramshackle hutches or thick vegetation, and director Reichardt’s visual approach relies on her usual naturalism. She captures the beauty of the forest not via wide-angle vistas, but through a tight, square aspect ratio that makes the woodland feel overwhelming, almost impossible for any human to change.
Employing a nearly square, 4:3 aspect ratio, director Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt eschew grand landscapes, preferring to let their camera sit amidst the everyday weeds. There is really only one ostentatious shot in the film, when a concussed Cookie opens his bleary eyes to see a Native-American man performing ceremonial movements against a backdrop of windswept trees, but that image seems to have dropped in from another reality, as if it was a vision. The look of the film is augmented by a dreamy folk music-inspired score by novice composer William Tyler, and carefully naturalistic set design.
The performances are also quite excellent. Both John Magaro and Orion Lee are sympathetic and share perfect chemistry. Magaro lends Cookie a touching tenderness, while Lee gives gently amused voice to King-Lu’s curiosity, an irrepressible appreciation for the wonders of a place only half-conquered by man. Toby Jones is at his usual casual menace form, while Ewen Bremner is hilarious as always. In smaller roles, Lily Gladstone and Alia Shawkat don’t get much scope to leave an impact. On the whole, ‘First Cow’ is an excellent indie western that is both charming and ruthless.
Directed – Kelly Reichardt
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 122 minutes