Over the years, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has proven to be a rather steady and unique voice in the world of independent cinema. Largely starting with Old Joy (her breakthrough early feature), Reichardt has crafted a host of quality indies, including Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, and Certain Women. Now, she’s back this week with First Cow, which has a feel of mixing some of her greatest hits together, thematically. In that way, she manages to craft perhaps her most accessible work to date. To that end, A24 may well be able to make this one a bit of a small scale crossover success.
The film is largely a two hander, looking at an unlikely friendship. After a modern day prologue, we meet Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro). Working as a cook as he heads west, he’s very much a loner, never connecting with anyone. Having joined a group of fur trappers on the way to, and in, the Oregon Territory, he’s seen mostly as an annoyance. One day, he meets and makes a connection with a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee). In short order, a bond is formed. The two men plan out a business, hoping to team up and make a life for themselves. However, having limited means, it’s very much a shoestring operation, heavily reliant on the help of a wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow. For a spell, it all seems to be working, but when their collaboration is threatened, what will they do? Reichardt directs and co-writes with Jonathan Raymond, adapting his own novel. Christopher Blauvelt provides the cinematography, while William Tyler composes the score. Supporting players include Ewen Bremner, Lily Gladstone, Toby Jones, Alia Shawkat, and Scott Shepherd.
A combination of Kelly Reichardt’s skills and the performances of both of her leads (especially John Magaro) make this one of her most accessible movies. Orion Lee and John Magaro put forth deeply human turns, instantly becoming people you want to spend time with. In particular, Magaro proves just as effective in a period piece as he has in more modern fare. This is further evidence that he’s going to be a star in short order. It’s a question of when, not if. Under the direction of Reichardt, he spreads his wings and is able to fly. This is subtle work, but altogether captivating.
First Cow is an indie that takes its time (like any of Reichardt’s efforts), almost to its detriment. However, Lee and Magaro, along with the cow, are so easily watchable that you invest in the story Reichardt is telling. At times, the pacing may be too languid, stretching out the running time over two hours, when it likely didn’t need to be, but watching her two leads try to make their way just has a really compelling appeal. Reichardt always assembles an impeccable cast, that much is a given these days. Here, she does so once again, helping to make this the success that it is.
Starting tomorrow, audiences who either love Kelly Reichardt or trust in A24 would do well to give First Cow a shot. After a well regarded film festival run in 2019, it represents a very solid indie option here in 2020. As long as you don’t struggle with her lax pacing, you’re likely to enjoy the unique little tale that she’s telling. Plus, how can you not love an adorable cow? Take a look at this one over the weekend and see what you think. You may well love what you end up finding…
Be sure to check out First Cow, in select theaters this weekend!
(Photos courtesy of A24)