First Cow (2020)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
“First Cow” tells the charmingly simple story of two trailblazing frontiersmen (John Magaro and Orion Lee) starting a successful baking business using the stolen milk of a wealthy Englishman’s (Toby Jones) cow. It answers the old question, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
Director Kelly Reichardt’s first film in four years is a lighthearted examination of masculinity’s corruptive potential…or so I thought at first. After a while, it seems that all the silly scuffles between burly men we see happening are merely a tool for juxtaposing against our main character. John Magaro’s Cookie, as his character is known, prefers scones to hardtack and always enjoys a nice floral arrangement. He lives a platonic domestic life with his new roommate, a Chinese immigrant. These are two Gold Rush-era characters we’ve never seen before. Magaro’s performance is understated, but more believable than Lee’s. Something about Lee’s line delivery looked uncomfortable.
Painstakingly careful attention was paid to historical accuracy, it seems, and “First Cow” certainly stands a chance to be nominated in Oscar fields like costume and production design. It’s a very non-traditional period piece with predictably wonderful pieces from its period. And the film’s unique Americana score sounded like something I used to hear at my hometown’s annual heritage festival, where reenactors set up teepees and played traditional music on authentic instruments. It was a joy to experience.
This latest A24 release is refreshingly low-stakes, which is how I described the distributor’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” last year. I enjoyed both movies, but neither was so exciting I wanted to tell my friends about them. Still, “First Cow” weaves a delightful tale of friendship in hard times. You won’t have a hard time enjoying yourself.