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First Cow - Movie Review

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First Cow

Capitalism may have first planted its roots in the wealth centers of the American northeast in the founding days of the country, but the greedy tentacles of supplying the new world’s demand soon enough reached far beyond to such places as the Oregon territories. That's the setting and the narrative drive for Kelly Reichardt’s (Meek’s Cutoff) latest film from A24 called First Cow, which doubles as a tale of male friendship and an engrossing, yet somewhat castigating, examination of America’s entrepreneurial spirit.

"Reichardt cracks the code of indie filmmaking by crafting a densely layered film that is as approachable as it is consequential"


In their own rights, both A24 Films and Reichardt are powerful filmmaking forces to be reckoned with. Particularly considering that each has, arguably, never made a bad film. So, naturally, it was just a matter of time before the gravitational pull of the two forces was too great to keep them apart. The result is one of the year’s strongest films and a sure-fire runner in the Oscar race.

Loosely based on – with emphasis on looselyJonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, First Cow opens in modern day with a young lady and her dog happening upon two full human skeletons buried, side by side, in a shallow grave. We’re left to wonder what could have possibly happened to the pair, but we never revisit with a closing bookend. As the final scene fades to black and the credits roll, their fate becomes heartbreakingly clear.

We then jump to the Pacific northwest sometime in the early 1800’s as the California gold rush was heating up. We meet a young camp cook called “Cookie” (John Magaro, Overlord) who is traveling with a group of burly fur trappers. Better at cooking, baking, and foraging for mushrooms and vegetables than actually catching anything to cook, Cookie is soon on the outs with his meat-hungry traveling party.

By chance, Cookie comes across a naked, hungry man named King-Lu (Orion Lee, Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi) hiding in the bush. Being the kind heart that he is, Cookie takes the naked man in and learns that he is a Chinese immigrant on the run from some Russian trappers, one of whom he may have killed. It’s not long before Cookie and King-Lu forge a strong relationship that eventually becomes a thriving business partnership involving the sale of pastries to hungry travelers.

The problem is that the milk they use for the pastries they call “oily cakes” (a type of fried donut), is stolen from someone else’s cow. T cow is the property of wealthy land owner named Chief Factor (Toby Jones, The Hunger Games) and is said to be the very first milk cow in the territory. Cookie’s treats are so popular it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand, and conflict soon arises as the two struggle to find that delicate balance between greed and caution. First Cow

Magaro and Lee are close to perfect in their roles as they craft two wonderfully complex characters who forge an unlikely friendship. Working as opposites, Magaro’s Cookie is an introspective soul who finds motivation from within, while Lee’s King-Lu is the planner and doer of the pair who sets in motion their grand plans of pulling up stakes and moving to San Francisco to open a hotel or restaurant. It’s always a good sign when a filmmaker can make us truly care for the story’s main characters. We root for Cookie and King-Lu in spite of their flaws and poor decisios.

As she did with her previous films, in First Cow, Reichardt cracks the code of indie filmmaking by crafting a densely layered film that is as approachable as it is consequential. She and co-writer Jonathan Raymond don’t take the easy way out. Instead, they stack their story with a complex mix of nuanced characters, a half-dozen or so relevant themes, gorgeous filmmaking techniques, and a moving score from William Tyler. The result is a fun and engaging, yet bittersweet story that is never intimidating and has us relishing the friendships we cherish in life. In addition, history buffs will appreciate the look back at a time and place that is rarely featured in film.

Despite the natural beauty of First Cow’s Pacific coast setting and the delightful friendship shared by Cookie and King-Lu, there’s a much less beautiful matter that snakes its way though this melancholy fairytale: the matter of free economics and the struggle some will endure to get their own piece of the American dream.

Originally scheduled for release in theaters back in March but delayed due to the caronavirus pandemic, First Cow is now available on various streaming platforms starting on July 10, 2020.

5/5 stars

First Cow

Blu-ray

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Available on Blu-ray

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First Cow

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Runtime:
122 mins
Director
: Kelly Reichardt
Writer:
Kelly Reichardt; Jonathan Raymond
Cast:
Alia Shawkat, John Magaro, Dylan Smith
Genre
: Drama
Tagline:
A film by Kelly Reichardt.
Memorable Movie Quote: "I had no idea how small time I was until I met you."
Theatrical Distributor:
MGM
Official Site: https://www.thehustle.movie/
Release Date:
May 10, 2019
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
August 20, 2019.
Synopsis: In the hilarious new comedy THE HUSTLE, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson star as female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, who team up to take down the dirty rotten men who have wronged them.

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First Cow

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