Saturday, March 21, 2020

Movie Review: First Cow

First Cow **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: John Magaro (Cookie Figowitz), Orion Lee (King Lu), Toby Jones (Chief Factor), Ewen Bremner (Lloyd), Scott Shepherd (Captain), Gary Farmer (Totillicum), Lily Gladstone (Chief Factor's Wife), Rene Auberjonois (Man with Raven), Alia Shawkat (Young Woman).
Note: I, rather foolishly I will admit, saw First Cow in theaters last Friday (the 13th)– it was the first show of the day, and I sat nowhere near anyone – but given the current situation, I still shouldn’t have done it. But I did. It is great – and you should see it. A24 has announced they will relaunch the film at some point when all this over – yet another, albeit smaller, reason to look forward to this ending.
The films of Kelly Reichardt are quiet – attuned to small details and moments, that slowly, subtly build. They are the types of films that some people will love, and others will complain that “nothing happened” as they watch them. But in all of her films – including her latest, First Cow, a lot is happening – but it is happening quietly. First Cow is, like her breakthrough Old Joy, a tale of male friendship. But it’s also more than that. It is a Western, of a sort, and will undeniably remind viewers of Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Like that film, this one is also very concerned with capitalism and the effect it has on people – who push themselves too far, to try and get a little bit a head, even if it endangers them now. It is a film of subtle power – the exact type of film you expect from Reichardt at this point in her career.
The main action centers on Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) – the cook from a group of trappers in Oregon, in the 1820s. They aren’t the biggest of outfits – and the long weeks and months in the wilderness has made tensions rise, tempers to grow short – and Cookie ends up on the receiving end of the abuse. He first meets King Lu (Orion Lee) – when he comes across him late one night, where King is completely naked. He tells his story – strange as it is – and Cookie protects him. Later, they will meet again in “town” – where the two will become a more permanent pair, without ever quite laying out the terms of their agreement. It is easier for them to survive if they work together.
The title of the movie refers the area’s first cow – shipped in by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) – an Englishman, who wanted some milk for his tea. The female cow survives the long journey – her mate, and offspring don’t. Cookie observes, innocently enough, that he is tired of the bread they are forced to eat – made of flour and water – he sure could use some milk. And so, First Cow, becomes a quiet, strange heist film in its way – every night, the pair sneak out and milk the cow, and make biscuits that they sell in town for big money. No one can figure out how they do it. They make money – a lot for that area – but instead of getting out while the getting is good, they just keep pushing things further and further – desperate to get enough to set them up in a dream scenario that at some level, they both know will never happen – but they cannot give up on anyway.
The way Reichardt slowly, subtly layers in everything she is doing here is terrific. It’s a film that builds everything piece by piece, but never spells everything out for you either. You have to do some of that building yourself. She has always had a way with casting – finding the right faces for her films, and the same is true here.  Magaro is perfectly cast as the quiet Cookie, someone who tries to keep a low profile, keep his head down, and just get through it. He is matched by Lee as the more entrepreneurial King Lu – pushing everything further and further. They are outsiders – as are many in this film – King Lu is from China, when we meet him, he is running away from Russians – the Chief Factor is British, even Cookie, with that last name, may well be Jewish – even if it’s never quite breached. Reichardt fills the film with interesting faces and actors – some of them just for a scene or two, like the Lily Gladstone (so great in Reichardt’s Certain Women) – who plays the Chief Factor’s Wife (there must be a story there – one that, sadly, we don’t hear).
It all leads, as I suppose it must, to tragedy – but the power of the movie is how it moves there slowly, surely subtly. This is one of Reichardt’s best films – but then again, they all kind of are. She doesn’t make bad films, just assured ones like this.

No comments:

Post a Comment