By Afra Nariman
First Cow (2020)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Lily Gladstone, Gary Farmer
In the 1820’s Northwest, a skilled cook and a Chinese immigrant collaborate in starting a baking business that relies on a local wealthy man’s prized cow, with hopes of striking it rich — as was the goal of everybody else at the time as well.
Every now and then, a film comes along that, on the surface, doesn’t seem like it should blow you away, yet it does that and so much more. These types of films often times affect your mind, soul and your entire conception of film. First Cow, director Kelly Reichardt’s new masterpiece, is that kind of film. When you’re about a quarter of the way through, you will say “Oh, this movie is good. It’s interesting.” When you get to the halfway point, you get that feeling in your stomach and in your mind: “Wow. This might end up being really, really great.” Then when you’re about three-quarters of the way through, you come to realize that you’re watching something incredibly special. When the film ends and the credits roll, you will find yourself staring at your screen. Nothing has changed in the world around you, but in your mind and heart, your love for films will have grown and your entire psyche altered. For days after watching, you will find yourself thinking about this movie, how good it was, its story, its pace, its aesthetic; and you’ll also wonder why it has affected you this much. It isn’t anything crazy. The film is rather simple. In fact, its very simple in many ways, but it has a few elements that completely captivate you. The time, place and the simplicity in which the story is told.
The film opens with a quote by poet William Blake:
Right off the bat, we know that this will be a story of friendship. The bird’s home is a nest, the spider’s a web, and home for people lies in friendship. This instills a level of humanity that the film will adhere to.
First Cow is a minimalist Western, if any such thing exists. The film takes place in the 1820’s Northwest and follows the endeavors of a speciality cook named Cookie who meets a Chinese immigrant named King Lu, and together they pursue what was naturally the thing to pursue at the time: riches. The two men come together to form an entrepreneurial friendship. In the town that they are staying in, a wealthy man has just acquired a prized cow; the first in the area. Craving biscuits, the two friends sneak onto the wealthy man’s property one night and milk the cow in order to have milk to bake the biscuits with. When King Lu tastes Cookie’s biscuits, he is struck with an idea: to sell them. After testing the market, the two men find that their biscuits are a hit, and continue to milk the prized cow every night in order to have a new batch of biscuits to sell the next day. The film follows what happens as the days go on. In the end, greed arises, but friendship prevails.
You don’t notice the film approaching its crescendo, but at a certain point, you will find yourself hooked — utterly and absolutely immersed in the simple story and its aesthetic of the early 1800’s, the forests of the Northwest and the subtlety portrayed culture of Native Americans at the time. The slow, dragged out scenes poetically show us the setting’s beautiful nature and the mundane actions of their days: cooking, talking, etc. Another fundamental aspect of the film that contributes to the film’s aura and ability to set a mood, is its use of sound. With a combination of enchanting music, strumming and the natural sounds of their environment: crickets, birds, wind; it highlights the artistry taking place on screen and solidifies our enchantment with the film.
First Cow is a story of passion, friendship and aspiration. Kelly Reichardt has effortlessly created a masterpiece of cinema. Her mastery over minimalist style filmmaking is as apparent as ever. She shows her grasp on the aesthetic of film and uses a delicate finesse to tell a simple story about two friends looking to strike it rich with the help of a local prized cow. First Cow is simple and progresses slowly. It is also transformative, hypnotic and a pure collaboration of poetry and film.