First Cow – Film Review

I first fell in love with the work of Kelly Reichardt when I first saw the film Wendy Lucy over a decade ago. That love was further entrenched into my heart when I pulled a group of my friends along to ACMI to watch the criminally under-rated Meek’s Cutoff. There was just something about Reichardt’s filmmaking that drew me in. She had a very special way of telling a story – a way that I had never seen in cinema before.

Reichardt now returns to the screen with her unique story-telling ability with First Cow. Like she did with Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt returns to the pioneer days of the USA. This time the story is set in Oregon and centres around a young cook, named Cookie (John Magaro), who is working for a ruthless group of fur traders.

When he realises how dangerous the men are he decides to part ways with them and stay in a town that he finds himself visiting. As he begins to explore his new surroundings, he is reunited with a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), whom he protected while on the Oregon Trail.

As the two men dream about a way to escape the lives they are living, King-Lu discovers Cookie’s abilities to make some of the best biscuits on the frontier. After the two realise the biscuits can be made even better by stealing the milk of the first cow in the region they soon have a business that is a roaring success. But given the cow is owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones) and guarded by the likes of Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) that is a job thawrt with danger when execution would be the punishment if caught.

Like all of her films, I found Reichardt’s First Cow to be a work of beauty. She and her cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, capture the beauty of the area surrounding them despite the harshness of the story and the fact that the cast are struggling to walk in mud. We learnt from Meek’s Cutoff that Reichardt knows how to find beauty in ugliness and despair and she once again manages to do that with First Cow.

This film has all the Reichardt trademark film tropes. A main character that has reached wits end with their life, long drawn-out scenes that stick with their audience and a method of filmmaking that captures the imagination of anybody watching it while keeping them on the edge of their seats, even if the characters are only glancing at each other. In scenes where characters are about to be exposed, the way Reichardt frames the screen raises so much suspense that you feel like you are watching an action or a thriller.

The other delight with watching First Cow is seeing the amazingly natural performances of Orion Lee and John Magaro. Both reveal themselves as talented character actors and even though there is a question mark over whether Lee’s character is a murderer or not (this is revealed in the scene where you first meet him) you are instantly drawn to him in the same way you are with Magaro. You want to see both men succeed even if they have to do a little bit of crime to make it happen.

First Cow once again shows why Kelly Reichardt is one of the best filmmakers currently working in the US. Nobody knows how to bring beauty to the screen the way she does and no other filmmaker knows how to tell a story in her unique way. If you don’t mind a slow film then this is a must-see film for you.

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