First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

⚠️ Warning: Real Review Incoming ⚠️ 

God, I would kill for one of those oily cakes right now.

First Cow is a masterpiece. Quiet, slow, and sure-handed, the film has so much to say about gender, race, colonialism, male friendship, capitalism & exploitation, etc. without explicitly saying much. Kelly Reichardt isn’t preaching or even coming from a persuasive angle; instead, she deftly grounds the “American Pioneering Spirit” in a vat of true friendship, honest representation of manifest destiny, gritty realism, and slow cinema. What erupts is something special, moving, and wholly unique.

I recommend you stop reading and go see it, but be prepared for a deliberately paced top-tier addition to the canon of modern slow cinema. It held my attention without issue, but I absolutely can see it not playing well if you aren’t in the mood for something so slow and meditative.

How is this the first Kelly Reichardt film that I’ve seen? I was supposed to watch Meek’s Cutoff for a class last semester, and I failed to do so. After this film and seeing Meek’s on a few best of the decade lists, I’ll be checking it out soon. Reichardt is an exciting filmmaker to me, for many reasons.

One such reason is that she puts so much faith in her viewer. There’s a point in First Cow where we see a young boy get screwed over by people older than him; at that point in the film, it’s played for a light laugh, and I wasn’t inclined to think too much on it. But Reichardt trusts us to remember this small moment when he pops back up later in the film, and it’s crucial.

The faith is evident in every shot & slow edit; once again, First Cow is not the fast cutting cinema we are used to in this semi-ADHD raddled culture we find ourselves in. Instead, Reichardt lets images sit and worm their way into the viewer’s subconsciousness- and almost never through a flashy camera move or idiosyncratic cut. 

The attention to period detail is incredible! The costuming, sets, and locations are some of the most atmospheric I've seen in a while. She really sticks you into the world and makes it so believable- the oily cakes are a great example of this, GOD did those weird little nothings look so delicious. The sound design is what grabbed me most, however- you feel every squish of mud, crack of twigs under feet, babbling of brooks, squeal of pigs, etc. Formally, Reichardt is on another level without ever shoving it in your face. 

And the story! The two main actors do a great job in their roles. Orion Lee plays witty Chinese immigrant King Lu with such serenity- he’s clearly seen hard times, but much like Reichardt’s camera, his charisma subtly bubbles to the top. John Margaro’s Cookie is quiet & kind; his soulful watchfulness is a great conduit for the audience. Interestingly, he’s coded w/ many traditionally female traits (especially in the time of the film’s plot): after all he’s the cook, he also sweeps King Lu’s house & provides flowers, AND he takes care of the baby at the bar scene. While there doesn’t seem to be much sexual subtext with King Lu & Cookie, their relationship is unmistakably domestic. It lends the film to having really interesting ideas about gender & same sex friendships. The rest of the cast does great as well, especially Toby Jones.

I think First Cow has a lot to say about all the topics I mentioned before, and I need to think about the movie more before I make some statement about how it definitively says x or y. But trust me, it will stick in my head for a while.

Last thing I’ll say is that I think the opening scene is secretly one of the best I’ve seen in a long time; w/o spoiling, its connection (or rather, disconnection) with the rest of the film gives the remaining hour and forty-five minutes a hefty weight with its hinting of the inevitable. Maybe that’s what I’ll ultimately pull from the film; all players in the early American capitalist game had inevitable fates that can’t escape, especially within contexts of immigration, colonialism, & race.

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