- First Cow review by Alphaville
If you know director Kelly Reichardt (eg Meek’s Cutoff) you’ll know her films are deathly slow. As soon as this opens you know you’re in for a long haul, with still shots that go on forever. 15 minutes in and all that’s happened is that someone has picked some mushrooms. Then it gets worse. At least you can see the mushrooms. Much of the rest is filmed in darkness because there was no artificial lighting back in Old Oregon, don’t you know.
The thing is, you see, Kelly doesn’t make films. She seems like a nice person, but she makes anti-films. Which must be why the arthouse crowd like her, because otherwise her success is unfathomable. She even films in the old 4:3 ratio, apparently for close-ups but patently because the big wide screen is beyond her capabilities. She should exhibit in a conceptual art gallery for like-minded souls who think Duchamp’s urinal constitutes high art. A cow appears in a few scenes.
Here’s some advice, Kelly. Open up the screen, learn what a camera can do, learn to compose a shot, learn to edit, stop shooting in the dark, give your actors more to do than mumble and add at least a modicum of life to the occasional scene. In short, watch some real films and go to film school.
2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.
Poignant, intelligent tale of the 1820s frontier
- First Cow review by PD
Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful film opens with a present-day scene involving two neat skeletons being found side by side by a curious dog and its owner, who treats the find like a professional archaeologist. It doesn't take us long to realise that these are the bodies of Cookie Figowitz and King-Lu, the friendship of which the film concerns itself. Their remains are remnants of a long-gone West, namely 1820s Oregon - its mélange of business and trade, origins and ethnicities, together with its opportunities and dangers, superbly depicted. John Magaro is spot-on as as Cookie, a humble Jewish cook travelling West from Maryland with a gang of fur traders who seem to hate him, his performance beautifully complemented by Orion Lee as King-Lu. on the run from killing a man. Their friendship is quickly kindled; the men move in together out of the completely natural instinct, often shared by outsiders, to stick together. Lee takes the Western trope of the indecipherable East Asian outsider, typically a complete non-character, and imbues King-Lu with a magnetic cleverness—something intriguingly at odds with Cookie’s humility, in that it could work to Cookie’s benefit or his complete demise. Magaro, meanwhile, is an actor with the kind eyes of a saint - the scenes involving him sweet-talking a cow into relinquishing her milk are tender and totally convincing.
But the men’s friendship isn’t the only story of First Cow. It’s the seed of something larger, portended by way of William Blake in the film’s epigraph: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” This being a Western of sorts (but don't expect any 'action' - Reinhardt is in no hurry at all), tensions arise from the broader problems of commerce and ambition that beset these men. Capital, the film reveals, is sustained through intimate transactions, be they the lowly designs of propertyless men like Cookie and King-Lu, the face-to-face haggling of culture and craft between whites and Natives, or the deals people apparently make with nature and fate. King-Lu is the guy with a mind for business, who takes Cookie’s humble ideas—the man just wants to bake!—and, through acumen and risk, makes them plausible, but, inevitably, Cookie and King-Lu find themselves enmeshed in the sort of trouble that arises when the have-nots try to make a way in the world for themselves.
Throughout, Reichardt successfully undoes the traditions of Western iconography - in place of the vast and symbolic possibilities of Monument Valley as with John Ford, we get tight, local depths based on forests and local life, whilst her emphasis on specific slits of character—the holes in Cookie’s boots, the sensual waves of his honey dipper as he lovingly garnishes the oily cakes that become his trade—has the effect that untouchable horizons and broad vistas do in more traditional Westerns. At the same time, here, as with Reichardt’s other films, the characters’ lives are whittled down to spirit-shaking, material choices, decisions that at times literally set the course for the rest of their lives.
There's a few little implausible plot contrivances in the last sequence, but given what went before one is swept along nonetheless. Poignant and highly intelligent filmaking.
1 out of 2 members found this review helpful.