REVIEW: ‘First Cow’ is a strong film about gentle people

How now, first cow?

This feature from the studio A24 does in fact feature a cow, but it also includes a whole lot more. The movie is set in the early 1820s, during the days where pioneers pushed west for trades such as gold and fur. We’re immediately introduced to Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook who’s part of a fur trading group making their way to a fort.

Cookie isn’t exactly on friendly terms with the others in the team, though, as they claim he doesn’t provide enough food. Once he gets to the fort, though, he does manage to start a friendship with a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), who he met earlier during his travels. Not only do the two form a bond, they also begin a money-making scheme where they secretly milk the first cow brought to the area and use it to make high quality baked goods.

There’s a lot to like in director Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.” It’s an exceptionally well crafted motion picture. However, it’s not the easiest to get into. While the first third of the movie introduces interesting themes that will be at play for the whole film, there’s also a lack of urgency and energy, making it a bit tougher to get fully engaged.

The movie does pick up in a really strong second act, though. Not only is the entrepreneurial idea the two main characters work on clever, but the film also digs more into who the leads are and builds up their relationship.

There are hints given, though, that show how the situation may turn out, and it somewhat detracts from the third act, which could have been more poignant. That’s not to say the movie drops in quality in the third act, it just doesn’t hit emotionally as one would hope.

Courtesy Film Science, IAC Films and A24

Making much of “First Cow” work is the acting duo of Magaro and Lee. Both play quieter men, especially Marago, and as such their performances are reserved and soft, which do ultimately fit the slower pace and more restrained, melancholic nature of the picture.

There’s a calmness to their interactions, both in how the actors capture the characters’ interactions and the dialogue they’re given. There’s a purity to the bond that’s created and it strengthens the movie a great deal.

The themes at play add to the richness of “First Cow,” too. Subjects like toxic masculinity, capitalism and the relationship between pioneers and Native Americans is all on display here and handled well. The idea of hardship pushing people to illegal activity was especially notable, and reminded me of 1948’s “The Bicycle Thieves.”

Chris Blauvelt, the film’s cinematographer, also deserves a lot of credit for absolutely gorgeous shots, capturing pristine imagery of nature. There’s a bit of disappointment in that there weren’t enough shots featuring Figowitz’s cooking, but for the most part the movie looks superb. It also helps that the set and costume design was absolutely on point.

“First Cow” has plenty of strengths. The acting is solid, the characters are strong and the craftsmanship is superb. However, the the first act sags and the third doesn’t finish things off as strong. 3.75 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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