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First Cow Film Review: A Minimalist Frontier

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a niche recommendation; an anemic expression of the trails of the American frontier.

First Cow follows a chef nicknamed Cookie, played sensitively by John Magaro, and King Lu (Orion Lee), as they steal milk from the region’s only cow, owned by the upper-class Chief Factor (Toby Jones). While this synopsis may give the impression that Cookie and King Lu’s journey possibly harbors moments of suspense and tension, First Cow is distinctly resistant towards more traditional formats of filmmaking. The film moves at a leisurely pace, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt hovering over the more minute details of the forested regions. This consuming patience both amplifies First Cow’s sincerity towards its depiction of and integration of humanity with nature, and also serves as the film’s most glaring fault, turning what could have been engaging scenarios into indistinguishably stagnant moments.

To be clear, director Kelly Reichardt and team have undoubtedly actualized their specific vision. The atmosphere of First Cow is particularly curated. Film grain blends the lush, wet pines of frontier America into its similarly dampened villages. The color palate of dim browns and mossy greens often gives way to the glaring warmth of the sun filtering through dense trees. In addition, all these environments are extended and improved through wonderful sound work – the peculiar crunching of leaves, the squelch of mud, and the creaking of wood. These technical combinations build up First Cow’s world and feel with grace and ease, highlighting how this uncharted environment was already home to so much long before humanity’s footprints ever encroached on it.  

It’s a forlorn shame, then, that First Cow’s pacing and characters feel so unfulfilling. Cookie fares the best, as the portrait of a kind and compliant man is a rare centerpiece for the rugged history at play here. And yet, Reichardt either seems too infatuated with Cookie’s bumbling pliancy or alternatively disinterested in granting him any agency as the narrative closes. While First Cow is deliberately lacking in antagonists, King Lu’s flirtations with greed become exceedingly cliché and grating. Thankfully, though, his genuine bond with Cookie helps alleviate these character trappings. Unfortunately, after an uneventful but distinctly crafted first act, Reichardt’s narrative regressively gives way to the themes of working-class fairness, focusing too expectantly on the notions of pride and success that accompanies manual work that so often epitomizes and limits other films set within the frontier.

Notably, First Cow is thankfully unconcerned with the bloodshed and machismo posturing of these similar films – Mel Gibson’s frontier filmography comes immediately to mind. And yet First Cow’s focus is so patiently singular that it eventually becomes monotonous. This effect is extremely exacerbated by the dialogue, which is delivered so apathetically that it feels as if the characters themselves might be on morphine.

loud and clear reviews first cow
John Magaro and Orion Lee in First Cow (Allyson Riggs/A24)

First Cow is thus stuck at a peculiar intersection. Its atmosphere and environments are masterfully portrayed. Its characters are unexpectedly vulnerable, and their mutual friendship is palpable and emotionally stirring during even the smallest of interactions. But for all its idiosyncrasies in presentation and characterization, its narrative regresses into a standard fare that lacks momentum or significant character growth. First Cow excels in its microcosms of interactions and naturalist integration – in the brief (notably, subtitle free) conversations between natives and foreigners, in Cookie’s soothing whispers, and in the remains of two friends who perished long ago. Side by side in the damp earth.  

First Cow: Trailer (A24)

First Cow is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Find out more on A24’s site for First Cow.

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