First Cow

first_cowSTARS3.5First Cow opens with a quote from the poet William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”  That sets the tone for this poetic rumination on the deep accord that develops between two men.

Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a sensitive man of few words who works as a chef for a band of unruly fur trappers.  Then one fateful day he encounters a runaway Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee) and the two form a strong bond that will also yield financial results.  The “first cow” brought to the territories by a rich landowner named Chief Factor (Toby Jones) inspires them to steal her milk to make “oily cakes”.  They’re made with a little honey and a pinch of cinnamon and they look delicious.  They then sell these to the locals for a profit.   Coincidentally Chief Factor is quite taken by the biscuits the men are selling.  “I taste London in this cake!”  However, he is oblivious as to where they are acquiring milk for their baked goods.  In an amusing development, he hires the duo to make an elegant french tart called a clafoutis —for a special meeting with a visiting captain (Scott Shepherd).

Director Kelly Reichardt has a minimalist style.  In movies such as Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women her reliance on slow static takes is meant to be savored as one would appreciate a delicately balanced wine.  She is presenting the truth.  I adored the solidarity that unfolds over time amongst these close allies.  I wholeheartedly enjoy the sincere depiction of humanity in film.  She can get a bit indulgent though.  I must admit that I found some parts to drag.  The production has a painfully long introductory credits sequence.  Then it commences with a wide, fixed shot of a barge easing slowly down the Columbia River.  The director is in absolutely no hurry to take the narrative anywhere quickly.  She defiantly establishes this fact at the outset.  However, the situation grows infinitely more compelling from there.  Those with the patience to luxuriate within a deliberate pace will be handsomely rewarded by this thoughtful tale.

Can we talk about that ending, though?  Rest assured I won’t give details.  I’ll be completely abstract.  The late great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman once declared: “The film is made in the editing room.”  Truer words were never spoken.  I am reminded of his quote as the final scene of First Cow faded from the screen and the credit rolled.  The feature opens with a seemingly random episode of a woman (Alia Shawkat) who happens upon — thanks to a curious dog — something buried in the dirt earth beneath her feet.  Then the proper story begins with a flashback to the 1820s in the Oregon wilderness.  I contend Reichardt’s deeply realized portrait of friendship would have been even more powerful had the intro been the outro.


2 Responses to “First Cow”

  1. I completely agree with you on switching the beginning with the ending. I think I would have been in tears. Yes, slow paced, but very good. Wish I could have tasted those oily cakes. 3 1/2 stars


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