****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner
written by Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond, based upon the novel The Half-Life by Raymond
directed by Kelly Reichardt
by Bryant Frazer First Cow states its subtext out loud about a third of the way in, drawing attention to the offered capitalist parable in a conversation between newly-met friends Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). They are walking in Oregon Country, gathering trapped squirrel carcasses as they go. "I sense opportunity here," says King-Lu. "Pretty much everywhere has been touched by now, but this is still new." Cookie responds, "Doesn't seem new to me. Seems old." And King-Lu scolds him, gently: "Everything is old if you look at it that way." What's old is new again in Kelly Reichardt's film, which draws from this early American relationship between an indentured baker and an ambitious Chinese immigrant a metaphor for the eternal working class--cash-strapped artisans struggling to establish their own stake in a national prosperity hoarded by those at the top of the pecking order. "History isn't here yet," King-Lu observes from across the two centuries distancing him from the film's audience. "It's coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms."
Well, you can't blame a guy for trying. Although King-Lu has the shrewd mind of a businessman, First Cow demonstrates that the boots of history can tramp as hard on the clever ones as on the rest of us. He may well be in the right place at the right time--yes, there is money to be made from the hungry frontiersmen and, sure, a larger market looms to the south, in what the pioneers still call Saint Francisco--but success requires an initial financial stake, and for a poor man on the American frontier, that's the tricky part. Cookie first stumbles across him as he hides naked in the underbrush, pursued by Russian fur traders. ("I...might have killed one of their friends," he explains.) Cookie is a native Marylander turned Bostonian who has travelled west with a group of fur trappers he's obliged to feed, though he seems to have no special talent for hunting. At some personal risk, he smuggles King-Lu out of the woods to a local settlement. Then, as Cookie struggles to find his place on the frontier, the two meet again and naturally become friends.
First Cow is no schematic sociopolitical screed. It's a naturalistic historical drama, a gentle character study, and an exceptionally well-realized portrait of a relationship between two temperamentally different men who go into business together in a bid to change their destinies. Reichardt makes plenty of time for the two of them to become comfortable in each other's company, drinking together, kindling fires, gathering berries, and comparing personal histories. Cookie is the skilled innocent and King-Lu is the worldly schemer, so they complement each other. If you're familiar with the general trajectory of this type of story, you may expect the schemer to exploit or abandon the innocent, or for the innocent's naivete to become a liability, but First Cow isn't like that, either. Instead, it's about two men discovering a fighting chance in a fast-evolving new world.
Cookie's just looking for work, but King-Lu wants to secure them both a place in the new world. Opportunity knocks as word spreads that the chief factor (Toby Jones), a local trading official whose character was inspired by Fort Vancouver's real-life John McLoughlin, has taken delivery of the very first cow in the territory. Cookie muses that he could make biscuits far superior to the local bread with her milk, and King-Lu's ears perk up. He asks, "What else do you need to make good biscuits, Cookie?" And then: "How long does it take to milk a cow?" And that's how First Cow transforms, deliciously, into a kind of heist movie, with our protagonists stealing into the factor's property under cover of darkness to milk the dickens out of his big, beautiful brown cow. Cookie mixes the purloined secretions into batter, which he fries up and offers out of the pan as "fresh oily cakes." They sell well and, just like that, our protagonists have a revenue stream.
I've been a Kelly Reichardt fan since deciding the languors of her fascinating, nearly soporific Old Joy had their own specific cinematic meaning; that film is about almost nothing, but explores in its subject nearly everything. While both Meek's Cutoff (a survivalist western set in the Oregon High Desert) and Certain Women (an anthology film comprising low-key character studies, including one starring Kristen Stewart) seemed like advances that expanded her canvas without much altering the nearly too-dour tone, First Cow is truly masterful. It's more than two hours long, and Reichardt takes her time with almost every scene, but it flies by, partly because the scenario by Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond squeezes an enormous amount of suspense out of the question of exactly how much milk the two men can swipe before their M.O. is discovered, and the matter of what will become of their relationship when that happens.
It's also impressively rich with period detail and finely drawn characters. I love the scene where Magaro, who invests Cookie with an unfailingly gentle spirit without ever making him out to be a comic figure, pulls up a stool to milk the cow a second time and can't help spilling his secrets. "Couldn't sell them fast enough. A little honey, or it was your milk in the batter that did it," he murmurs to her conspiratorially. Even the bit players who are only on screen for a scene or two, like the Native Americans looking for ways to coexist with the newcomers before history blasts their way of life out of existence, or the visiting Captain Ruby (Scott Shepherd), with whom the factor argues the calculated merits of whipping a man to death, clearly have histories of their own. When the late René Auberjonois shows up with a raven on his shoulder and a "get off my lawn" scowl on his face, you can sort of intuit where he's coming from.
The warmth of the performances adds a depth of feeling to Reichardt's incisive and critical study of American exceptionalism. First Cow understands the sad-eyed animal of its title as a droll symbol of colonization (she is introduced floating into town on a small barge, gorgeously backlit by the sun and chewing her cud), and there is a timelessness about it. The picture recognizes that the disadvantage shared by King-Lu and the Native Americans who have been on the scene for generations is racial, not simply social or economic. It's a story of ordinary life in what we now understand as an extraordinary era, but it resonates with today's sociopolitical climate; in that, it feels like a classic. What's more, it's funny and it's sad, and often it's both at the same time. The mood is sometimes mournful but never depressing. Rather, it celebrates the human spirit, demonstrating between these two men a generosity of spirit that plays in quiet harmony against the counterpoint of manifest destiny.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Despite the excellence of her achievement, Reichardt had a difficult year, with COVID-19 shuttering American movie theatres just as A24's First Cow marketing campaign reached a fever pitch. The film opened in four theatres in March but was pulled from release little more than a week later, with a vague gesture towards more theatrical engagements later in the year. Eventually it debuted on streaming platforms, and now A24's Blu-ray release seems to close the door on any kind of brick-and-mortar bookings this year. Fortunately, the BD offers a mostly gorgeous transfer of the film, pillarboxed to its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The disc ably reproduces DP Christopher Blauvelt's work with colour and light. For example, look at the striking blue-on-blue composition of the film's opening shot, where the azure of a river is separated from the cerulean gradient of the sky only by a thin strip of autumn landscape running across the middle of the image. Or peer into the shadows of the chief factor's candlelit home in the scene where the flames providing sparse illumination are snuffed out, one by one, and yet the details of Anthony Gasparro's production design remain visible as the camera tracks back and forth, side to side.
My main cavil with the image here has to do with film grain. Perhaps I should say "film grain," since First Cow was shot digitally and had grain layered over the image in post-production. Normally I'm on board with fake film grain as a way to break up the sometimes startlingly clean expanse of digitally-acquired imagery, but here the grain brings an unpleasant grittiness to scenes shot against expansive, intricate backgrounds like the forest behind Alia Shawkat in the modern-day sequence that opens the film. I sincerely doubt the Blu-ray transfer is at fault--it almost certainly correctly reflects the digital master that played in movie theatres--but I have to wonder if the grain looks and feels more organic when projected on a large screen. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is everything you'd expect from a contemporary film. It's clean, finely detailed, and features some choice, highly directional effects placed in the surround channels where appropriate--mainly the sounds of men at work at the trading post, or natural ambience in the wilderness. (Be warned: though you would be correct to expect that the soundtrack to a film titled First Cow sports generally modest dynamics, there is a 22-second DTS trailer placed in front of the feature that will absolutely wake up the neighbours if you have your system at reference levels.)
The disc's only behind-the-scenes offering is the informative featurette "A Place in this World" (27 mins.). It's better than the studio-sponsored average, interviewing Reichardt, Raymond, Blauvelt, Magaro, and Lee about subjects such as the film's condensation of Raymond's source novel, visual reference taken from works by Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer, the advantages of the 4x3 aspect ratio, and some of the ways Magaro and Lee prepared for their roles and dramatized their characters' easygoing relationship. Reichardt gets to talk about working as her own editor, and there's some discussion of shooting day-for-night with the production's ARRI Alexa camera, though nobody wades very deep into the technical weeds. Blauvelt discusses smearing Vaseline on the lens to give one sequence a hazy, brink-of-death quality, and at one point, Magaro volunteers, "I've never seen anyone do what Chris did with an Alexa." Also on board is a trailer for A24's 2019 hit The Farewell but, curiously, no trailer for First Cow itself. DVD and digital copies of the film are included with the disc.
122 minutes; PG-13; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA; English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Lionsgate/A24