Saturday January 02, 2021
Movie Review: First Cow (2020)
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s best-known film is probably “Wendy and Lucy,” about a girl and her dog, and this movie begins with a girl and her dog beside a wide, slow river in Oregon. The dog is sniffing and digging after something until the girl (Alia Shawkat, Maeby from “Arrested Development”) shoos it away; but by then the dog has uncovered a skull. Now it’s the girl’s turn. She digs until she uncovers two skeletons lying side by side, almost in repose, as if they’d died sunbathing. She looks up at the sky with something like wonder.
We don’t have to wonder. The movie will be about those two skeletons: who they were and how they got there. It’s a good framing device.
Not quite kindred spirits
Reichardt has set us up for the story we’re about to see in another way. The first shots in the present are of a boat making its slow way up the wide river, and it’s deliberately, glacially paced—as it is when we begin the story of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s. I immediately flashed on Stanley Kubrick giving us the soporific pace of life in 18th-century England in “Barry Lyndon.”
We first meet Cookie collecting chantarelle mushrooms in the damp woods and righting a lizard that has flipped on its back. Then he hears a noise and flees. Sliding down an embankment, he winds up in a fur traders camp. “Frying pan, fire,” I thought. Nope. These are the people he’s traveling with and cooking for. But yes, too. They are brutish men: forever complaining and threatening him.
Cookie is a gentle soul in a brutish world. The next day, or week, or month—who knows?—during one of his forages, he comes across a naked Chinese man, King-Lu, who’s running from Russian fur traders since maybe he killed one of their friends after they definitely killed one of his. And it’s like with the lizard again. Cookie rights him. He brings him a blanket, then offers him his tent, then surreptitiously brings him along on the next leg of the journey.
He hooks up with him again at a trading post. Cookie has done his job, receives his payment, and with part of the money buys himself a new pair of boots. Initially he’s proud. We see him cleaning them, and he wears them, dandyish, with the trouser legs tucked in. Then one Oregon Territory weirdo (Rene Auberjonois, in one of his final roles) comments on them. Then others do. It feels like wolves gathering. The next time Cookie cleans his boots, he leaves the trouser legs untucked to not draw attention.
It’s at a bar that he see King-Lu again. Their conversation is stilted but friendly. King offers him a drink at his shack in the woods, Cookie accepts, he winds up staying. They keep chickens, forage, fish. One flashes back on the epigraph from William Blake that begins the film: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” This is that friendship.
If the first half of the movie is identifying the two men who would become the skeletons along the river, the second half is how they died along the river.
One day, while foraging, Cookie spies the titular cow, which he’d first seen arriving at the trading post, and which is the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a powerful, homesick Brit. That evening, Cookie mentions the cow in passing to King and talks about what he could cook with milk. It’s King who suggests the nighttime raid to steal some of its milk. (Yes, I thought of John Mulaney.) And after a few bites of Cookie’s biscuits, it’s King who goes from impressed to impresario: How much would trappers pay for this? Early on, I thought the two men were kindred spirits, but King is less gentle soul than opportunist, and this is that opportunity. At the trading post, the biscuits are a hit. Long lines form.
I like that Cookie keeps improving the product: now some drizzled honey; now a sprinkle of cinnamon. He’s the artist and artisan. He’s also naturally cautious and assumes the milk raids can’t last. But King, counting the profits, figures the risk is worth the reward.
I was with Cookie. The pace might have been 19th-century but the tension was overwhelming.
Butch and Sundance
The longer they go, the more entwined they become with the man they’re stealing from, Chief Factor, who loves Cookie’s oily cakes, and asks if he can’t make a clafoutis to impress a visiting captain. Shortly thereafter they’re finally caught. Ironically it’s the lookout, King, who gives them away, when the tree branch he’s sitting on cracks and falls under his weight, alerting the household.
Now it’s a chase. In a scene reminiscent of “Butch Cassidy,” King jumps off a cliff and into a river, but Cookie, either unable to swim or unable to find the courage, hides in the bushes. Another irony: He’s the one who winds up wounded when he falls in the woods and hits his head. Eventually the two men reconnect, as we know they must, and attempt to flee to San Francisco. But Cookie is obviously hurt—I almost got nauseous imagining the dizzying head wound—and when they get to the river he has to lie down. King is lookout again, and again fails; soon he’s lying next to Cookie. It’s similar to the way the skeletons were positioned. A man with a gun is pursuing them, but Reichardt, mercifully, leaves them there, in the moment before their final moment. The death we’ve fretted over for two hours is never shown.
“First Cow” was voted the best film of 2020—admittedly a small sample size—by the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. And while I don’t think it’s that good, it is wholly atmospheric. You feel part of that time. You also feel lucky to be part of this one, where warm homes and baked goods are readily available. The movie is sparse and slow, but those are the very things that make it interesting. The movie is about the lack. I liked it for John Magaro’s kind eyes, and the kind way he talked to the cow. That made the movie for me.