Published Mar 12, 2020First Cow feels like a movie from another time — and not just because it's set in fur trade-era Oregon Territory. It's defiantly slow-paced, with a minimal score and gloomy Pacific Northwest visuals that make no attempt to accommodate for modern viewers' short attention spans. There's even a boxy aspect ratio that looks purposefully dated.
This slow pace is the calling card of director Kelly Reichardt, who based First Cow on Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half-Life (Reichardt and Raymond co-wrote the screenplay). The film follows a cook, aptly named Cookie (John Magaro), as he attempts to make his way in frontier Oregon, encountering lots of brawls and temperate rainforests along the way.
Fortune and friendship are hard to come by, but his luck turns around once he meets Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee). The pair hatch a get-rich-quick scheme: there's only one cow in the region, and by stealing its milk from the aristocratic owner (Toby Jones), Cookie can fry up hotcakes that sell like, well, hotcakes.
It's a seemingly lighthearted caper that could have been yanked from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it disguises a canny commentary about the corrupting influence of capitalism and class divisions: even in a semi-nomadic society without a formal economy, a seemingly trivial inequality — access to milk — inspires greed and conflict. A single cow carries the potential for wealth and upwards mobility, and the impoverished are willing to risk it all for access. There's also a touching depiction of co-dependent friends relying on one another in an unfamiliar land.
Whether or not audiences will digest the message will depend entirely on their patience with First Cow's crawling pace. If you can handle a film with multiple scenes that depict milking a cow at night, this is a rewarding watch.