First Cow is the kind of flick critics hail as a masterpiece while mainstream moviegoers deride it as long, slow, totally boring, or all the above.
If you thought The Lighthouse sucked? Man, you’re going to hate this movie. It is a bit long, most definitely slow, and at times, even boring. But if you’re the kind of person who appreciates a slow burn, there’s something really special here.
Director Kelly Reichardt works with an extremely simple premise—two guys stealing milk—though the concepts she and writing partner Jonathan Raymond explore are far more complex than First Cow’s plot suggests.
The bulk of the narrative takes place in 19th-century Oregon Territory, where a lonesome cook (John Magaro) and naked Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) unexpectedly meet. After striking up a friendship, the two become roomies and literally shack up in woods. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (Magaro) cooks, and the arrival of territory’s first cow makes him yearn for the one ingredient that will make his food really pop: sweet, sweet moo juice. So he and King Lu (Lee) start stealing from the cow/her wealthy owner (Toby Jones), selling deliciously milky biscuits in town and saving up to open a small hotel in San Francisco.
It’s through the lens of this humble American dream that Reichardt and Raymond ruminate on camaraderie, class, and capitalism.
For the glass-half-full crowd, the relationship that forms between Cookie and King Lu will resonate above all—an indelible bromance to hold onto through the film’s bleaker moments. First Cow’s framing narrative (set in the modern day) establishes doom right away, but Reichardt somehow finds a sense of triumph, however short-lived, in this unusual friendship.
The rest of us will focus on the parallels drawn to contemporary sociopolitical issues. As beautiful as it is to see our heroes’ solidarity, their circumstances—and the unwavering sovereignty of wealth throughout American history—make for a depressing watch. Cookie’s backstory specifically outlines the cruel hand he’s been dealt: His parents died when he was young, work dried up, and he was forced to the frontier. What’s a person supposed to do in these situations? What upward mobility can there be when you’re struggling just to stay alive? As King Lu says, “There’s no way for a poor man to start.”
Unfortunately, the people who most need to hear this probably aren’t going to see a measured bovine period piece. Still, it’s worth calling out how skillfully Reichardt relays both a sense of hopelessness and the excitement of maybe, just maybe rising above one’s conditions. All this distilled from a few gallons of milk.
Toby Jones deserves his own shoutout as the antagonist Chief Factor. While he’s never truly a sleeper thanks to consistently killing it, there’s a subtle scariness to Jones’s interpretation that ups the stakes without veering toward villainous caricature. It’s not the paltry amount of stolen milk that gets Factor’s goat; it’s the idea that someone like Cookie could take what’s his. Of course, the of idea ownership never crosses his mind when he looks at his Native American wife or the swath of Pacific Northwest he’s claimed for himself.
First Cow may be slow, but its performances and thematic highlights far outweigh its downsides. Just don’t go looking for the life-affirming buddy pic the trailers make this out to be. This movie is a major downer.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Orion Lee, John Magaro
After its initial release date was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, it's now streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Google Play.