Review: Stirring 'First Cow' glistens with beauty
Courtesy of A24
Director Kelly Recihardt is back on the scene with the stirring and gorgeous drama “First Cow,” a film that punctuates the American dream with a “Huckleberry Finn” style of presentation.
A sly period piece that’s practically a western, “First Cow” gives audiences plenty to savor with its muddy, overcast setting in the beaver-trapping era on The Frontier circa 1830. Reichardt indulges in the pleasures of home, the beauty of the wilderness, and the love for animals. Guaranteed to garner awards attention come 2021, especially for cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt whose delicate attention to detail (the film is presented in a matted 4:33.1 aspect ratio) gives the glistening Oregon landscape a refreshing new lens.
John Magaro is Cookie Figowitz, a Jewish baker not made for, but stuck in the fur-trapping lifestyle and is often ridiculed by his peers when he can’t catch a squirrel for dinner because he got distracted by mushrooms. He’s got dreams of opening a hotel and yearns back to his apprenticeship under a chef in Boston where he learned the tricks of the trade.
That’s when he runs into a fella by the name of King Lu (Orion Lee), under dressed and seeking refuge from captors to which Cookie obliges, and then, months later, the pair link up in, the co-occupied British and American, Oregon Territory.
Lu and Cookie have big plans and aspirations: Lu, for example, sees the profitably in Beaver oil or starting a farm harvesting everything from pecans to almond orchards. The possibilities are seemingly endless, but the duo understands the need to act fast and start their own business before the going gets tough. And once Lu understands Cookie can bake delicious pastries, all bets are off, however, when you’re out in the literal woods yummy ingredients are hard to come by.
Enter the titular heifer of the picture, a beautiful Jersey cow imported by pompous British beaurocrat Chief Factor (Toby Jones). This signals a new enterpernial spirit in the two lads: “Can cows give milk at night?” Lu asks and it’s off to the races. They set out to make deep-fried, honey dipped cakes (with a dash of cinnamon), from the milk they steal in the dead of night. After all, aren't all the best ideas built on the foundation of stealing from others? McDonalds didn’t happen overnight.
Reichardt (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, which was based on his novel) has made a sincere and delicate film that, despite its often slow and agonizing middle sections, manages to get the small and minor period details spot on the nose. It’s a beautiful setting that’s matted format enhances the surrounding areas (though, I’d suggest watching the film in a dark room with the lights off, as I found the scenes at night difficult to process).
Recihardt also captures the aurora of freedom which is the basis for these two raskly lads trying to carve out their own legacy. Magaro and Lee have an earnest charm and chemistry about them and the scenes where Cookie has to sooth the animal before he milks her, is the stuff of a great director with a clear focus on the beauty of this creature. Which is representative of the entirety of “First Cow” and its engaging narrative, including hidden discussions of cultural civility and solidarity. But of course, it also begs the age old question of why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
FIRST COW will debut digitally on July 10th.