FIRST COW (2020)


 Greetings again from the darkness. A modern-era woman (Alia Shawkat) is hiking along an Oregon river with her trusty dog. Something catches her eye and she begins tentatively brushing away decades of leaves and soot. Ultimately it turns into an excavation of two human skeletons nestled together. How many years since these two laid down for the last time? Why in this spot?  It’s a terrific way to begin a story, and does justice to what follows … all of which takes place in the early 19th century.

Director Kelly Reichardt has already made her mark with such standouts as CERTAIN WOMEN (2016), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), and WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and this time she adapts the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond from his 2004 novel, “The Half-Life”. Cookie (John Magaro, also seen in this year’s SYLVIE’S LOVE) is initially seen traveling west with a band of trappers. Skirting the law as they make their way in this new world, the men act as bullying brutes towards Cookie, a quiet and sensitive man. During one stop for camp, Cookie is rummaging the brush for food when he stumbles upon a naked Chinese man who is hungry and running from Russians (aren’t we all?). Cookie provides King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) with food and shelter, a Golden Rule act that comes full circle not long thereafter.

Cookie and King-Lu begin establishing something more than a friendship. It’s a life bond (but probably not in the way you might be thinking). It’s more natural instinct – a ‘two heads are better than one’ partnership. Despite the hardships of early frontier days, the two men share their version of the American Dream, and it’s about this time that our titular bovine makes her entry stage left. The cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who is eager to create a more refined life in this untamed wilderness. Cookie views the cow’s milk as the key to creating tasty biscuits (a rare treat), and King-Lu immediately recognizes the possibility of profit. The nightly heist features Cookie’s one-directional conversation with Evie the cow … presumably making her first screen appearance.

Ms. Reichardt’s film is not nearly as simple or slow moving as it appears. She fills it with a slow-build tension, especially in the second half. The film requires patience and attention to detail from viewers. How can something so quiet and peaceful be filled with such danger and difficulty? That’s the brilliance of the film. Supporting work is provided by Scott Shepherd as a military officer Factor tries to impress, the late Rene Auberjonois (whose presence seems a tip of the cap to Altman’s classic MCCABE AND MRS MILLER), Ewan Bremner (whose accent requires subtitles for comprehension), and Lily Gladstone as Factor’s Native American wife.

This is the first film I recall where a clarfoutis plays a key role, and there are sprinkles of dark comedy throughout … which plays well off the rugged characters and environment. William Tyler’s score and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematographer mesh well with the fine performances throughout.  Ms. Reichardt opens the film with a William Black quote, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. We witness the friendship, and by the end, we wonder if it’s also a web.

Available on Showtime and streaming outlets

watch the trailer

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