Its title is not as bad as "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga," but "First Cow" is in the running for worst title of 2020. After seeing it, I'm not sure what else I'd call it though.
"First Cow" is an odd, slowly-paced Moooooooo-vie (I had to make this pun, sorry!) that is the sort of film critics will gush over and average movie-goers will feel disappointed with. It lands right in the wheelhouse of director Kelly Reichardt, whose previous films ("Meek's Cutoff," "Old Joy") have felt minimalist, and have shown grittier, dirtier sides of Americana.
John Magaro ("Not Fade Away") plays "Cookie," a timid baker on his way West with a group of trappers (the film is set in the 1800s in Oregon, a favorite location of Reichardt's). He comes across King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run. Prosperity in those days was hard to come by, but the two see a golden opportunity to strike it rich when a town they travel to receives its first cow (the bull and calf died in transit). Milk "doesn't agree" with King-Lu, he tells Cookie, but when Cookie explains the multi-faceted value in re-purposing dairy, they embark on a business collaboration.
Stealing the cow's milk in the dead of night, they use it to make "oily cakes," which they sell to the poor townsfolk. It doesn't take long for the commoners to realize they've never had anything quite as delicious. A day later, a line is wrapping up around the town as they wait to purchase their wondrous delectables. The cakes catch the attention of the town mayor (Toby Jones), who isn't even aware that their secret ingredient comes from his own cow.
The film is deliberately small and minimal, emphasized by Reichardt's decision to shoot it in the boxy 4:3 format. It's wonderful to watch the detail and the dirt...it's the sort of early-world filth that makes you feel like you need to take a shower after spending some time with these men. It's a focused story about friendship, beginning with the excerpt from William Blake's "Proverbs from Hell" stating: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." It's well-acted and effectively beautiful. Ironically, it's also a massive test of patience.
Almost as a test to the audience, the film opens in modern times, with a shot of a freighter that slowly enters the frame, and passes through the frame in its entirety. The shot lasts about 85 seconds. It's almost as if Reichardt is OK if some in the audience tune out right then and there. "First Cow" is not meant for those with short attention spans.
And while that isn't a negative by any means, it is the truth. The slow-drag of "First Cow" is still a drag, but if you continue reading "Proverbs from Hell" you'll see the final line: "Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd. Enough! or Too much!"
"First Cow" is both enough, and too much...a tasty morsel of human connection that seems like it would have benefited from a leaner trim from the fat.
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat.
Screenplay by and novel movie is based on by Jonathan Raymond.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt ("Night Moves," "Meek's Cutoff," "Wendy and Lucy").
"First Cow" is available on streaming platforms beginning Friday, July 10th, 2020.
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