Based on the novel The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond, First Cow is the story of a loner who befriends a Chinese immigrant as they hope to strike it rich in the Oregon territory as they borrow milk from a cow that belongs to a rich landowner. Directed and edited by Kelly Reichardt and screenplay by Reichardt and Raymond as it explores two different men who try to create a new life in the 19th Century in the Oregon territory as they also try to do something for themselves. Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, and Rene Auberjonois. First Cow is a rapturous and evocative film from Kelly Reichardt.
Set in 1820 in the Oregon territory, the film revolves around a baker who meets a Chinese immigrant as they become friends as they hope to become rich upon encountering a cow that belongs to a rich landowner from Britain. It is a film with a simple premise as it plays into two men trying to create better lives in a land that was in the early stages of being explored while a rich landowner arrives with a cow that he wants to have as he awaits for another cow to create a cattle farm. The film’s screenplay by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt does follow a straightforward narrative though it opens with a small scene set nearly 200 years later where a young woman (Alia Shawkat) is walking her dog as she finds a shallow grave as it leads to the story of these two men in the cook/baker Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) who befriend each other as they’re both outsiders in this expedition through the Oregon territory. The latter was hiding from the Russians after he killed one of them while the former is treated poorly by fur trappers as the two choose to work together and then meet this cow whom they would milk at night and make food to sell.
Reichardt’s direction is definitely ravishing in the simple compositions that she creates as she shoots the film on location in Oregon while presenting it in a 4:3 full-screen ratio format as it gives the film an intimate look. While there are some wide shots that Reichardt creates to get a look into the locations including the film’s opening sequence with the young woman walking her dog. Much of the film has Reichardt emphasizing on close-ups and medium shot to play into the intimacy while creating shots that do last long to get a sense of the location and what the characters are dealing with in their environment or in a certain situation. It adds to the dramatic suspense in some of the situations that include scenes of Cookie milking the cow while King-Lu is on a tree being a watchdog trying to see if anyone is going to show up. There is this suspense that emerges yet there is also peaceful in the way Cookie talks to this cow.
Also serving as the film’s editor where Reichardt aims for something straightforward in the editing, it adds to the way the film is paced where it is slow but only because time was slower then as it relates to how Cookie creates biscuit or how one walks to town from a house. It also play into this growing discomfort later in the film when the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) takes notice of Cookie and King-Lu’s small business as it leads to this meeting where the two are invited to his home as there is this tension emerging. Notably as it play into what Cookie and King-Lu are figuring out what to do next as they have these small ambitions to make a better life for themselves but there is that danger of being caught. Especially in what leads to that first scene of the woman with her dog finding this shallow grave as its ending is more about these two men contemplating their next move but also lost dreams they have for a new world for themselves. Overall, Reichardt crafts a mesmerizing and engaging film about a loner cook and a Chinese immigrant trying to start a new life with the help of a rich man’s cow in the early days of the Oregon territory.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt does incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on natural lighting and low-key colors to help maintain a realistic look and tone for the film as well as providing vibrant yet dark colors for some of the daytime exterior scenes. Production designer Anthony Gasparro, with set decorator Vanessa Knoll and art director Lisa Ward, does amazing work with the look of King-Lu’s shack as well as a local pub and the home of the Chief Factor. Costume designer April Napier does fantastic work with the costumes as it play into the period of the time with animal fur for some of the hunters as well as a refined suit that the Chief Factor wears.
Visual effects supervisor Chris Connolly does terrific work with some of the film’s minimal effects as it is mainly set-dressing for a few bits of the film. Sound designer Leslie Shatz does brilliant work with the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the locations as well as maintaining a sparse tone for some of the quieter moments of the film. The film’s music by William Tyler is excellent for its low-key folk based score with its usage of string music including guitars and violins to maintain the film’s somber tone.
The casting by Gayle Keller is superb as it feature some notable small roles from indie musician Stephen Malkamus as a fiddler, Dylan Smith as a fur hunter who berates Cookie early in the film, Gary Farmer as a native guest of the Chief Factor in Totillicum, Lily Gladstone as the Chief Factor’s native wife, Scott Shepherd as a military captain working with the Chief Factor, Ewen Bremner as one of the Chief Factor’s security officers in Lloyd, Alia Shawkat as a woman with a dog who finds the shallow grave in the film’s lone 21st Century scene, and Rene Auberjonois in one of his final film performances as a trader with a raven as he takes a liking to what Cookie and King-Lu have created.
Toby Jones is excellent as the Chief Factor as a British landowner who brings a cow to the Oregon territory as he hopes to make money on the land as he is amazed by what Cookie and King-Lu have created unaware of the source of its creation. Finally, there’s the duo of John Magaro and Orion Lee in great performances in their respective roles as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu as two different men who are outsiders that choose to do things their way to make a new life for themselves with Magaro as a cook who knows what to though he’s a loner while Lee maintains a calm approach to King-Lu as a man that knows how to sell things but also with ideas as Magaro and Lee have an amazing rapport together in just being two men who become friends all because they didn’t want to play by anyone’s rules.
First Cow is a phenomenal film from Kelly Reichardt featuring incredible leading performances from John Magaro and Orion Lee. Along with its understated look and tone, a simple yet engaging story, rich sound design, and a somber music score by William Tyler. The film isn’t just this fascinating story of friendship and small ambition but also a story of two men trying to do things their way during a time where everyone had a role to play on a land that is being discovered. In the end, First Cow is a sensational film from Kelly Reichardt.
Kelly Reichardt Films: River of Grass - Old Joy - Wendy & Lucy - Meek's Cutoff - Night Moves (2013 film) - Certain Women - (Showing Up) - (The Auteurs #72: Kelly Reichardt)
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