First Cow (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Two men and a cow in the Wild West

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film “First Cow” lingers on my mind more than expected. While seemingly plain and modest in terms of story and characters, this little period drama constantly engaged me via its palpable realism and elegant storytelling, and I came to care about its two different main characters a lot as often touched by their desperate struggle for hope and dream in their harsh world.

After the opening scene set in our time, the movie goes back to the late 19th century, and we are introduced Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a feeble cook who has accompanied a bunch of trappers during their journey across the wilderness area of Oregon. Everyone is pretty hungry, but he only finds some mushrooms, and it is quite apparent from his brief interaction with the trappers that he is not regarded that well by them.

When he keeps searching for anything good enough to be cooked and then eaten, Cookie comes across a naked Chinese man. After discerning that this guy really needs help, Cookie not only provides him some food but also lets him hide amidst luggages belonging to the trappers without telling anything to them, and the Chinese man appreciates his kindness although he eventually disappears not long after that.

Anyway, once they arrive in a small village, the trappers let Cookie go with some payment, and Cookie feels lost as going here and there around the village, whose shabby and muddy period authenticity will probably take you back to Robert Altman’s great film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971). For most of residents in the village, life is tough and difficult as they try to earn their living as much as they can, and their hardships feel apparent to us even when the camera simply looks at some of them for a while (One of them, who has a pet crow on his shoulder, is played by René Auberjonois, a veteran character actor who incidentally appeared in Altman’s several works including the aforementioned film and sadly died in last year shortly after the movie had a premiere in the Telluride Film Festival).

While he aimlessly spends time at a local bar, Cookie comes across that Chinese man. As he has just settled outside the village, King Lu (Orion Lee) offers a place to stay to Cookie, and Cookie accepts Lu’s offer without any hesitation. Although Lu’s current residence is a small makeshift wooden shack, Cookie is grateful for Lu’s kindness, and we soon see him cleaning Lu’s shack and then bringing a little change to its interior.

As spending more time with each other in the shack, Cookie and Lu come to bond with each other more as sharing their modest aspiration. Both of them want to amass enough money to get them outside of the village and then take to San Francisco, where they may get more chances to earn more money. They frequently talk about how to run a business in San Francisco, and their faces become brightened a bit even though the life and business in San Francisco still feel like a distant dream to them.

And then there comes a small but significant opportunity for our two heroes. As a guy who once worked in a bakery, Cookie considers making some nice biscuits, and then he and Lu decide to steal some milk from the first and only milk cow in the village, which belongs to none other than Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a British dude who is the wealthiest man in the villager.

What follows next is akin to a little heist film with some indirect social commentary not so far from that of Oscar-winning South Korean film “Parasite” (2019). At one night, Cookie steals some milk from that cow while Lu keeps a lookout for any possible danger, and they soon embark on making and selling biscuits, which turn out to be quite more popular than expected. When their biscuits eventually draw the attention of Chief Factor, he does not seem to have any idea on what Cookie and Lu are doing behind their back, and he even instructs them to prepare a special kind of bread for his meeting with some visiting military officer. As Lu cynically points out later in the story, rich people like Chief Factor usually cannot imagine getting appropriated by people below them, and that is exemplified well by a subtly tense but funny moment when Chief Factor is quite oblivious to what is so obvious to us as well as Lu and Cookie.

While amassing a considerable amount of money, Cookie and Lu become more hopeful, but, as directly announced to us in advance via the opening scene, they eventually come to run out of their luck as reaching for more money to stabilize their financial status, and the mood accordingly becomes a little more intense during the last act of the film. Even during this part, Reichhardt, who also served as the editor of the movie in addition to adapting Jonathan Raymond’s novel “The Half Life” along with him, maintains her calm and restrained storytelling approach as before, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt continues to provide plain but undeniably haunting moments, which are austerely presented within the film ratio of 1.33:1.

In the background so vividly realized on the screen by Reichardt and her crew members, the main cast members did a convincing job of presenting human characters with the considerable sense of life and personality. While John Magaro and Orion Lee diligently hold the center via their sensitive low-key performances, and the other notable performers in the film including Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, and Alia Shawkat have each own small moment, and we come to appreciate more of how thoughtfully Reichardt handles all of her characters with equal respect and attention.

On the whole, “First Cow” is another excellent work from Reichardt, who has steadily impressed me since she drew my attention with “Wendy and Lucy” (2008). Although I merely admired “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) and “Certain Women” (2016), they have grown a lot on me after watching them, and “First Cow” has already begun to grow on me at this point. As many of other critics have said, she is indeed one of the best American filmmakers in our time, and now I belatedly concur with that opinion.

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