Title: First Cow
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Margaro, Orion Lee, Alia Shawkat
Runtime: 2 hr 2 mins
What It Is: A woman (Shawkat) and her dog come across a confusing and haunting scene at a park. Hundreds of years previous, settlers attempt to learn the ins and outs of the unfamiliar continent, trying to make America their own. Cookie (Margaro), a man assigned to collect and cook food for a group of fur traders finds a man on the run, King-Lu (Lee), cold and naked in the woods while avoiding the Russians. In spite of the confusion, Cookie decides to help King-Lu getaway, a kindness that leads to the two eventually seeking out to build a baked goods franchise when they steal milk from the first cow brought to the territory.
What We Think: This is a gorgeous film on so many levels, but what makes it the most beautiful is its stark comprehension of the cruel potential that lies in its landscape of history; the tension the characters face because of who they are, what they’ve been through, and what they’re doing sticks with you, carrying with you like a sort of humidity and making the balance with the beauty and grace provided by nature itself all that much more endearing. Personally I love this newer movement of period piece films that tackle a much larger sense of emotional/historical realism, delivering taut production, sound, and costume design while committing to the strife of its characters. It juggles both sympathy and an understood ruthlessness, often making comparisons between the time period and nature herself. The pace a tad on the slower side does not ring indulgent but more-so considerate to the integrity of the journey and performances. The main theme was additionally very generous in its contribution to tone–a simple yet melodic sweetness suggestive that in spite of the predictably grim reality we face, there is harmony and provision always to be found in nature as well, continuously carrying on this theme of symbiosis and ecosystem. The quiet juxtaposition strengthens the connection between the characters as we are constantly forced to face the possibility of death, sickness, and extreme poverty in light of incredible opportunity. Reichardt’s directing in this is so utterly polished; the observant, every-frame-a-painting cinematography and keen yet understated performances leave us with an immersive and intuitive piece of humanity-focused cinema.
Our Grade: A-, My heart melted, watching this. The attention to detail amongst quiet chaos is spellbinding, a path that leads you through moments of fear, injustice, curiosity, and tenderness. You feel so close to the characters yet are so aware of how far away in time they are, it is an odd sensation I can’t say I’ve had with very many other period pieces (The Favourite would be another good example of this realistic strangeness or intimacy). There is a romance to the care and gentle attitude in which this film is approached by that adds so much meaning to its reality. This film is so full of life in its characters, setting, and story–somehow it feels much like a challenge to its genre, applying a level of involvement that will make you feel like you are truly among their world, feeling the heat of their intentions. This is an incredibly sweet installation, possibly Reichardt’s greatest mark made in her career and certainly one of the best releases of the year.