First Cow ★★★1/2
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
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Survival, the Biscuit, the Chase
The first thing you’ll notice about “First Cow” is the title. Both odd and perfect, and better than “A Half-Life,” the title of Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel on which the film is based. Literally it refers to the first cow to arrive in the rough-hewn wilderness of Oregon Country in the 1820s. Figuratively, the “first cow” is a metaphor of transition and change, representing that liminal moment between a hard, masculine, beaver-trapping (“soft gold”), frontier culture that‘s on the cusp of decline, and something gentler—still masculine and distinctly entrepreneurial, but with a feminine side—that’s making its first appearance. In the form of a biscuit.
The “first cow” is a metaphor of transition and change.
The biscuit appears in the 2nd of 3 “Acts” that are preceded by a Prologue, which opens in the present with the discovery of buried skeletons, followed by a film-length flashback. Act 1 might be titled “Survival.” It features a naked, terrified Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), being chased by Russians, and Cookie (John Magaro), the harried, bullied and fearful cook for a nasty, brutish trio of easily-provoked trappers who appear ready to kill him if there’s no dinner put in front of them. The conditions under which the trappers—and others who inhabit the community—live, make the primitive encampment of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) look like a Holiday Inn.
Makes the primitive encampment of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller" look like a Holiday Inn.
Act 3 (we’ll return to Act 2 shortly) is “The Chase,” in which the two protagonists flee from a new enemy, more elite and more obviously civilized than the trappers, but also more malevolent. Led by Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the chase takes place in the woods, and it has a horror-film feeling to it: repetitive anxiety, sustained by the belief that we know, or think we know, what’s going to happen, and not because there’s an insane guy with a chain saw behind the next tree. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) meets “D.O.A.” (1949) or “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). The Prologue has made us more interested in how the action unfolds than the end result.
“The Blair Witch Project” meets “D.O.A.”
In sharp contrast to all this survival and chasing, Act 2 is a charming, poignant, even poetic meditation on male friendship—one forged from difference and similarity, and carried out in a challenging environment—complete with a caper, involving that cow, that moves the plot along. The relationship between low-affect Cookie and King-Lu, with his mellifluous voice, brings to mind the tenderness of the cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), though without the gay spin. Instead, Cookie and King-Lu are bound together by mutual trust, by their gentleness and embrace of domesticity, and by their disparate but linked dreams for the future. King-Lu is an inveterate planner and entrepreneur, and Cookie longs to use baking skills learned in Boston. And that’s where a buttermilk biscuit comes in. And the cow. And the caper. And then the chase.
There are pleasures to be had in watching a film assembled differently from current Hollywood fare.
Although each of the Acts has elements of tension, adventure and danger, award-winning small-film director and writer Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy” 2008) has produced a slow-moving and, at 2 hours runtime, overly long film that will now and then make one glance at the wristwatch. “First Cow” is also not without a few clunky scenes and lines. That said, there are pleasures to be had in watching a film assembled somewhat differently from current Hollywood fare: the film is projected in a nearly square aspect ratio (rather than the now-standard 1.37:1 rectangle), perhaps to evoke an earlier era and to refer to the film’s historical setting; the camera work is unusually restrained, the action often moving in and out of a still frame; the music, too, is limited and unobtrusive, allowing one to hear ordinary sounds acutely; and the film references the past even in its credits, many of which precede the picture—a rarity.
The pace of the film, sure to try one’s patience at times, is also essential to shaping some of the film’s most moving scenes. One in particular stands out: Cookie, making a biscuit for Chief Factor—carefully applying honey from a tin cup to the lump of fried dough, grating a topping of cinnamon, then, with two hands, delicately passing on the confection to his new and appreciative customer, who pulls it apart bit by bit, savoring each morsel. Slow, simple, and powerful.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones
Runtime: 121 minutes