DVD review: “First Cow” (2019)

“First Cow” (2019)


Running Time: 121 minutes

Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt based on The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Featuring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer and Lily Gladstone

King-Lu: “I think we should test the waters. Next batch, Cookie, we’ll take to market. I’ve heard a fortune is made on this.”

Cookie: “That seems dangerous.”

King-Lu: “So is anything worth doing.”

Released recently on DVD is one of the best films from 2019 in “First Cow” (2019) a period drama that explores a part of the US at a time when it was taking shape, but it does this from a deeply personal story that is a cautionary tale as well as incorporating the comedy, thriller and drama genres. “First Cow” also explores some kind of early market capitalism that would shape America, it is an easily understood plot that you know about a third of the way in is not going to end well for some of the deeply penetrating characters that have been shaped from the novel and into the smart screenplay. 

“First Cow” is most obviously a character driven film that illustrates what can happen when there is equal stupidity, bravery and danger that shows what is possible when scarce resources are shared, in this case stolen, from one class to another. It also shows the ultimate comeuppance will be if these thieves are found out, a definite tragedy to people who were trying to find their own way in a land that is unforgiving and lethal. 

The film begins in 1820 where Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is a quiet chef traveling in Oregon Country with a group of loud and aggressive fur trappers who harass him for not finding them enough food. One night, he comes across King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a Russian man. Cookie allows Lu to hide in his tent for the night and watches him escape across the river the next day. Cookie’s group reaches a fort and Lu finds him there, babysitting an infant in the middle of a bar fight, and invites him to his house. Cookie moves in, and learns Lu is thinking about starting a farm, while Cookie talks about opening a bakery or hotel in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the outpost’s first milk cow has arrived; her mate and calf died on the journey. She is left unattended at night just outside the house of the wealthiest English trader in town, the Chief Factor. Lu laments that poor men don’t stand a chance to get ahead without some kind of fortune or committing a crime. Cookie reminisces about his days as a baker’s assistant in Boston and tells Lu that he could use some of the cow’s milk to make baked goods. They sneak onto the Chief Factor’s property at night, Cookie milking the cow and Lu keeping watch from a tree. They manage to get enough milk to bake a batch of buttermilk biscuits. Cookie is unsatisfied with the result, wishing it could be sweeter, but Lu points out they are far better than anything on the outpost and suggests they could make a fortune. Cookie refines his recipe and adds honey. From here they have a thriving business of sorts for a time until they are found out which is inevitable. I will not give too many spoilers as the narrative is great and put together by two expert storytellers.

“First Cow” was co-written and directed by the incredible Kelly Reichardt who has been around for some time now, and proves just how good a filmmaker she is with this, her latest film in release. The film is based on the book The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond who also co-writes here, with much of the plot removed and boiled down to a macro narrative that has proven a very good choice, it is distilled to a point that it is on a razors edge. Reichardt directs with an assuredness that leads to a seemingly simplicity onscreen that requires experience and expertness, it is beautifully crafted and it seems everyone is onboard. It is a wonder to me that Kelly Reichardt was not nominated for this film, even for a screenplay honour which I believe it deserves, in fact it is difficult at this stage to believe she has never had an Oscar nomination for any of her previous films, this is something that needs to change.

With key performances by both John Magaro and Orion Lee, “First Cow” is captivating in how the plot unfolds and both men bring their all in the characters they play. In performances that could be seen as understated, which they are, but expertly played out onscreen especially with interaction with each other. They also shine in relation to their interactions with the rest of the supporting cast with many being more famous and experienced than them. However this lack of experience does not show as they rise to the occasion which has been controlled by the director who enjoys working with actors of all levels.  

This is a tremendous film that is totally engaging, it marries a very simple but understandable plot with a classical narrative with some flourishes as well as surprises, although none are real third act reveals. In fact all of the character motivations are laid out quite clearly as are their actions for carrying on the way they do. Also, we recognise the jeopardy they face well before they do, in fact even when the ending is coming it is difficult as an audience not to feel a great deal of sympathy for them. The film works on multiple levels which of course the best do, this is guided so well it is a wonder that at the time it was not nominated or awarded higher honours. I recommend this film highly, it was a highlight of 2019 and should sit in any collection. 


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