This review was originally written and published for Winstead’s Reviews.
In early March, A24’s latest indie project hit theaters after earning rave reviews along the festival circuit. Then, five days later, the world shut down.
“First Cow” had its theatrical run cut drastically short due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, the period drama is now arriving on demand to a variety of streaming services.
While it may not have been the release plan director Kelly Reichardt nor the studio had in mind, it ultimately may be the best route for the minimalist feature. Despite all of the praise the film has received, a bovine period piece still doesn’t exactly fit the bill as a seat filler. But now, with viewers confined to their own homes and with limited options to choose from, maybe more will stumble upon the magic that is “First Cow.”
Reichardt’s films are known for their slow pace. Movies like “Night Moves” and “Meek’s Cutoff” have a deliberate stillness that serves those films. What sets apart “First Cow,” though, is that the deliberately slow pace doesn’t just enhance the film, it’s absolutely necessary. But more on that later.
“First Cow” is set in Oregon during the fur trap era. We meet our protagonist Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) as he is foraging in the woods for meal prep. Cookie, a kind and gentle soul traveling west in search of a new start, serves as cook for a group of rather rough fur traders during their journey. It’s not that Cookie isn’t cut out for the masculine dominated trade, he simply chooses to use his skills elsewhere to become useful. During one of his foraging outings, Cookie meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant heading west for a new beginning, too. King Lu is obviously a bit down on his luck and Cookie, being the kind man he is, gives him food, clothes and shelter. This is the beginning of a fast friendship that blossoms further once the duo arrives at their destination.
The two are a great match, one a gifted cook who knows his way around a pastry, the other a business-minded entrepreneur. Naturally, when they happen upon the very first cow to arrive in the region, a plan starts to come together. The cow is owned by the wealthy and powerful Chief Factor (Toby Jones), meaning access to the animal is virtually impossible. As a result, the conniving business men have to sneak out to the cow in the middle of the night in order to retrieve the milk. Before long, the duo has their system down pat – King Lu crawls up a tree to keep watch, and Cookie milks. The soft, tender moments Cookie spends with the cow showcase what makes this film so enduring. His manner is so antithetical to that you would imagine of a pioneer in the 19th century untamed west.
The milk is used to make mouthwatering, honey-drizzled “cakes” which the two bring to the local market, serving lines and lines of eager and hungry settlers looking for a taste of “home.” Since there has been no milk in the region, and the only cow is being kept for private use, the cakes are instantly in high demand. So goes the routine of stealing milk and making cakes, the duo doing everything they can to strike it rich and earn a living.
That’s the story: two men stealing milk from a cow and trying to survive. You can find its themes on capitalism and classism spread throughout, as commodity and necessity bring out both the best and worst in humanity. The measured pace and tone that Reichardt sets is engrossing and often mesmerizing. Much like the life of pioneers, the film is about slowing down. There is no hustle. As the camera rests on King-Lu chopping wood and Cookie sweeping, it’s not some pretentious decision made by the filmmakers – it serves the story and the narrative tone, drawing us into the characters.
In “First Cow,” Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, who based the script on his own novel, have found a way to endear us to two great characters, a wholesome friendship, and a beautiful brown cow.
“First Cow” is available to purchase on home streaming platforms July 10 and for rental July 21.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.