Review: First Cow (2019)

First Cow (2019)

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt | 122 minutes | drama | Actors: Alia Shawkat, John Magaro, Dylan Smith, Ryan Findley, Clayton Nemrow, Manuel Rodriguez, Orion Lee, Patrick D. Green, Evie, Ewen Bremner, Jared Kasowski, Rene Auberjonois, Jean-Luc Boucherot, Jeb Berrier, John Keating, Don MacEllis, Todd A. Robinson, Kevin Michael Moore, Eric Martin Reid, Ted Rooney, Phelan Davis, Mike Wood, Toby Jones

At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was already a melting pot. English, Scots, Russians, Chinese, Native Americans and what not more. They all feature in master director Kelly Reichardt’s understated drama ‘First Cow’. In pristine Oregon, we meet timid cook Cookie and his Chinese companion King-Lu. Cookie was a cook for a company of trappers, King-lu is on the run from a bunch of Russians. Together they cherish their own American dream, starting a hotel somewhere in the west.

The fulfillment of that dream comes closer when suddenly a cow shows up in the wilderness. Cookie is able to make and sell the most delicious baked goods, as long as he has access to milk. So the two take the plunge and go milking the cow in the middle of the night. No problem? Anyway. Should the owner of the cow find out, our brave duo’s life is no longer secure.

In ‘First Cow’ we see many elements from Reichardt’s earlier films. Oregon’s rugged nature, the solace of friendship, and the inequality of American society. ‘First Cow’ isn’t even Reichardt’s first ‘western’. “Meek’s Cutoff” was also set in 19th-century America, but that movie was too sterile and contrived to really captivate.

‘First Cow’ is interesting, and how. The images often resemble living paintings, with exciting vistas and a warm chiaroscuro. The friendship between the men is pure and touching. Plus, the very first scene suggests that things might not end well for our heroes. Certainly in the last half hour that threat plays a major role, without ‘First Cow’ turning into a crime film.

The pace is slow, the environment is rough and dirty, there is hardly any dialogue and the main characters sometimes seem to do little more than darning their socks, preparing a meal or playing cards. But beneath all that mundaneness, it is all meaningful subtlety. We will not soon forget the sweet words that Cookie addresses to the cow. Or the disappointed look of a boy when the last treat has just been sold. Or the unlikely baby on top of a bar. Or all those other things that make ‘First Cow’ a hit.

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