A warm story about a friendship found in an unlikely place
FIRST COW (2020)
I have been eyeing First Cow like a hawk, waiting for it to be available for quite some time now. I am obsessed with everything A24 releases, so I had super high expectations going into this film. Many voices who had already seen this film when it premiered in August 2019 at Telluride boasted about how it would be one of the best in 2020. The film was set for a March 2020 theater release, and with the global pandemic--that affected it greatly because no one had time to get to the theaters to see it before everything shut down. At first, I was hesitant because my only option was to purchase and not rent on Amazon Prime, alas I was confident it would be worth it and live up to the hype.
Kelly Reichardt has become a fairly well-known name in the world of women directors. However, this is my first watch of any of her films so I do not have any of her other work to compare to First Cow. I found her style to be extremely calm and controlled. She handled the story and characters delicately, never distracting from the narrative and the people involved. I will seek out more of her films now because of this.
Based on the novel “The Half Life” written by Jonathan Raymond, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reichardt, this story is the opposite of the typical gun-slinging, horse riding western genre. The setting is the Northwest in the 19th century following two men who are attempting to survive and outlast being caught by a wealthy landowner. They are on the run because the two men, one a Chinese immigrant and one from the East coast, are stealing milk from this wealthy landowners cow to make baked goods which they sell. Their bond is contagious, as a viewer you feel as though you are part of a trio of friendship because you are on their journey, too, and want them to succeed. The moment you realize the narrative is coming to an end, you are comforted and at the same time your heart swells at the thought--based on the opening of the film, the conclusion provides a perfect bookend to the story.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The two central characters, Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) have chemistry and their friendship is believable and contagious. As a viewer, I laughed at their silly dad jokes and I desired to be their friend, too. They had an unspoken understanding of each other. The moments I loved the most though, happened when Cookie was alone with the cow milking her; his soft voice and encouraging words to the cow were so sweet and warm.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
There is hardly anything close to an “effect” in this film, but the aspect ratio makes it unique in itself. The setting is gorgeous and the cinematography takes full advantage of it, even in the moments that take place closed off in the woods or cabin. The design of the costumes fits the desired tone. Nothing extremely special here, but it works perfectly.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Wiliam Tyler contributed the music for this film, and it perfectly encapsulates the tones of a western without overdoing it. The track called “An Opening” that is used often throughout is just the right amount of twangy and country and folk-ish. This is perfect background music for a calm night sitting out by a fire drinking a whiskey.
Overall, this is a warm story about a friendship found in an unlikely place with two unlikely people, both just trying to survive--who wouldn’t love that? However, I would not necessarily recommend this film to my casual movie-watcher friends, as I think they would be left unsatisfied when just solely desiring escapism. This indie film’s story and characters are deeper than surface level, and should not be taken lightly by the average joe viewer. The second watch felt like a bedtime story, and I will look forward to revisiting it again soon.