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“Deliberate” is what you call something that would be boring if anybody but a really, super-good artist made it. First Cow is a deliberate meditation that puts the “lazy” in laissez faire.
As she has with her previous films, genius writer/director Kelly Reichardt doesn’t shout a thesis in your face or deeply probe a story for thematic insights. She just kinda pokes at themes with a stick. But it’s such a lovely stick…
Let’s get this established early: Reichardt’s films are the black licorice of cinema. Either you love the flavor, or you get real, real mad at whoever made you consume some. First Cow features slow, profound biscuit eating and a poignant, near-silent sequence of mushroom foraging. If you think you will hate this movie, you will hate this movie.
A decade ago, when Reichardt last visited 1800s America with Meek’s Cutoff, her “patient” approach left me quasi-furious. Although it is quite likely she has somehow only gotten better as a filmmaker, it’s much more likely that my movie taste buds have changed in profound ways. Her black licorice is now delicious to me. If you know how to listen, how to read her overlong scenes and threadbare plots, her films hit like poetry. Right, so if you also hate poetry, please run.
First Cow follows the friendship of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) as they eke out a living on the far Western edge of America in 1820. Their “get rich quick” scheme boils down to stealing milk from a cow in order to bake tasty pastries that they sell to prospectors.
Like an episode of The Great British Baking Show directed by Terrence Malick, the film is less interested in telling an elaborate (or any) story and more interested in unweaving blanket depictions of pioneers. Cookie and King-Lu are both tender souls, not six-shooter-toting desperadoes. Yes, the latter probably killed a guy… But he was so upset afterward that he threw his gun away, stripped off all his clothes, and hid in the forest!
With a gossamer plot, Reichardt engages with heady subjects, even if she doesn’t seem to take a stance on many. For example, does King-Lu’s desperate conversation with a Native American say something profound about the parallels and intersections of Chinese immigrants and indigenous peoples? Or is it just that neither could remember the word for “canoe?”
First Cow doesn’t explicitly condemn anyone or anything, although white frontiersman certainly come off as either savage jerks or wealthy wieners. Actually, trying to tie a bow around any specific message here is pretty difficult. The closest thing to an argument is probably that the “macho man” motif of America’s settlers is as far-fetched as our belief that the founding fathers were “decent people who just happened to own slaves.”
With a simply lovely and lovely simple score from William Tyler and lush, comforting cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt, First Cow is fuzzy all around. I still prefer Reichardt’s work when she’s a bit more pointed, like Certain Women, which still reverberates around my brain years later. First Cow feels like a lesser work from a maestro. But that still makes it a tune we are lucky to carry.
Grade = B+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
- Carla Hay at Culture Mix breaks down the various cultural conflicts and gets specific to who may not like this one.
- Travis Hopson at Punchdrunk Critics sees the film as a “parable about the dangers of capitalism.”
- Justin Chang at the LA Times looks at Reichardt’s deconstruction of the mythology of “the West.”