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Peace in passivity: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’

| Friday, March 26, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

“First Cow” moves at a cow’s pace. 

Yes, it is true that cows, when they really get going, can run at an average of 17 mph, which is about how fast the average human can run but slower than the average, say, car. But “First Cow” isn’t one of those running cows, sprinting across the farm; it’s a grazing cow, aimlessly munching grass one blade at a time. All this is to say, “First Cow” is a slow movie.

But that’s to be expected from director Kelly Reichardt. The auteur filmmaker has carved out a space for herself in the art cinema scene, specializing in slow-moving, meditative films, and “First Cow” certainly fits her M.O. The film employs long scenes — often with minimal action and dialogue full of diegetic sounds — to lull the viewer into the world Reichardt creates. The story, adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life,” progresses in a leisurely manner as well, but this pace gives time for the nuance and intricacies of the story to settle in.

“First Cow” centers on two unlikely partners, lonesome fur trapper Cookie (John Magaro) and on-the-run immigrant King (Orion Lee), in the 1820s Northwest. The pair become allies and later business partners as they, like so many of the first immigrants to Amerca’s Western seaboard, attempt to find a way to make money. Their delicate plan, which combines Cookie’s latent skills as a baker and King’s enterprising mindset, hinges on the secret use of a local businessman’s dairy cow — the titular first cow, played by Eve the Cow

Underlying the relatively straightforward story is a commentary on early capitalism in America, so favorably represented in common tales of the bold frontiersman’s quest to find land — and money — yet presented more delicately in “First Cow.” Cookie and King’s scheme finds them making use of their skills and the resources they can find in an effort to just get by, but without ownership of the cow, they’re on the ropes. While this interpretation of the film certainly has weight, it’s secondary to the focus on the friendship between Cookie and King.

The relationship between the two main characters lies at the heart of “First Cow.” Cookie and King are codependent in a literal sense — each could not execute their plan without the other’s help — but they also rely on each other for companionship. Not fitting in with the tough trappers, Cookie finds acceptance at King’s side, and King relies on Cookie’s kindness for basic survival. 

In the central relationship are echoes of Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” her breakout feature starring Daniel London and Will Oldham as two old friends who reunite for a camping trip. In a locale similar to the woodlands of “First Cow,” the men reflect on their past and their differing paths from it, while their relationship anchors the film. Similarly, the historical setting of “First Cow” harkens back to “Meek’s Cutoff,” Reichardt’s story of six settlers traveling West with a seemingly unreliable guide. She tells these stories of American lore through a lens of sharp realism, exposing the ideas, both good and bad, which the country was built on and which survive today.

The payoff for Reichardt’s slow-moving films often comes with their end. While not offering complete narrative resolution, her best finales, especially the one for “Meek’s Cutoff,” drive home a film’s main point and leave the viewer thinking about them for days to come. The ending to “First Cow” is as straightforward as the entire film which precedes it; it leaves questions unanswered but simultaneously quiets the need for any more questions. It says, “This is the story and this is where it ends,” a conclusion highlighting the essence of “First Cow.”

“First Cow” is playing at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. For more information on reserving tickets, visit the DPAC website.

Title: “First Cow”

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee

Director: Kelly Reichardt

If you like: “Ugetsu,” “Minari,” “Nomadland” 

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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About Ryan Israel

Ryan is the Former Scene Editor (2020-2021). He doesn't know how he got here or what he's doing — just like everyone else. Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryizzy.

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