Movie Review: First Cow

With cinemas around the world starting to reopen, we’ll soon know how ready audiences are to sit inside a room with a bunch of strangers inhaling the same recirculated air for two hours. Our own cinemas here in Hong Kong reopened last Friday, with restrictions (of course), but I haven’t been back yet. That will change on Thursday with the press screening of TENET. In the meantime, my attention remains on what’s streaming and available on the VOD platforms. Fortunately, there are still a couple of gems left to mine. One of them is FIRST COW.

It’s the late autumn and a young woman (Alia Shawkat, TV’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) is out walking with her dog along a riverbank where an empty barge slowly makes its way upstream. The dog finds something under the fallen leaves and the woman pushes away the earth to reveal two skeletons laying side by side. Flash back two hundred years where Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro, OVERLORD; THE BIG SHORT; CAROL) is a quiet and unassuming cook who is travelling with a group of fur trappers in the Oregon Territory. One night while on one of his foraging missions, he comes across King-Lu (Hong Kong-born Orion Lee, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII –THE LAST JEDI; SKYFALL), a Chinese immigrant who is on the run from Russian trappers. Cookie secretly brings him back to his tent and puts him up for night. Sometime later, Cookie and Lu run into each other again, this time at Fort Tillicum where Lu is now living. Lu invites Cookie to stay at his shack and the men bond over their dreams and ambitions. When the settlement’s first cow arrives for Chief Factor (Toby Jones, ATOMIC BLONDE; THE HUNGER GAMES franchise; the CAPTAIN AMERICA films), a wealthy Englishman, the men have the idea to milk the cow in the dead of night and use their ill-gotten gain to produce oil cakes for sale. In such a harsh environment, the soft and sweet deep-fried treats are an immediate hit with the trappers earning the men a handsome sum of silver coins and scrip. But their success comes with a cost and it isn’t long before their American dream brings some unwanted attention.

Director Kelly Reichardt has once again created a simple but slow-burning film about everyday Americans. Her debut film, RIVER OF GRASS, which was released in 2014, was nominated for a number of awards and landed on the “Best film of the year” lists of a few influential publications. Her minimalist style is not for everyone’s taste and some viewers may find FIRST COW a bit of a slog, especially when the film’s ending is revealed five minutes in. But the fact that we know (or assume to know) Cookie and Lu’s fate doesn’t matter. It’s their journey along the way that’s important.

I’ll concede, though, that the film has its problems. First off, much of it is shot in very dim light, which can get annoying. I understand that it’s supposed to be a time where light isn’t ubiquitous but there is a way to illuminate an outdoor set without losing the location’s authenticity. Second, a couple of time gaps in the story are head-scratching. My advice is to go with the flow because it will all make sense in a minute. Third is Lu’s accent. Unless he’s a cunning linguist, his English is too perfect and his accent is too American. Of course, I didn’t want him to sound like Charlie Chan but I would have liked him to screw up on his verb conjugation or drop a few articles once in a while. Finally, and perhaps this one is picking nits, where does Cookie get butter from? We don’t see him or Lu churn it and no one outside of Factor’s household would have any.

On the plus side though, FIRST COW has a strong sense of place with a bunch of ragtag characters who would seem at home in an episode of TV’s DEADWOOD. One of them, who is only known in the credits as “Man with Raven”, is played by the late René Auberjonois (TV’s STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and BOSTON LEGAL) in one of his final screen appearances. Magaro and Lee both put in assured performances with good chemistry between them. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that their on-screen friendship has continued off-screen. Magaro is reported to be in a new film about gangster Meyer Lansky starring Harvey Keitel. No word about when it will be released.

FIRST COW was another of the casualties of COVID-19. The film premiered at Telluride in August 2019 and had a very brief commercial release in the US in March before the cinemas there closed. It then went to VOD platforms in July of this year.

The film is available now to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime and iTunes. If you can handle the film’s slow pace, I would say to check it out.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, September 4th, 8:30 am HK time!

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