First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

Pacing and atmosphere are perhaps the two most important aspects of any film. The atmosphere of "First Cow" is thoroughly enveloping. It wrapped me up in the time and place of its story as well as anything I can recall. I was instantly attuned to the rhythms and surroundings of this small Oregon community in the 1840s. That brings me to pacing. When I discuss pace, I don't always mean brisk pacing. That helps with action movies and so forth, but "First Cow" demonstrates that a slower pace can be just as effective sometimes, if not even more so. Kelly Reichardt's film could be dismissed as "slow" by some impatient viewers, I am sure. It is rather slow. But there is purpose in its slowness. We live in a fast-paced world with modern conveniences. "First Cow" takes place in a slower, less hurried world where people had to struggle for every morsel of food (gathering foodstuffs from nature is a huge component of this film, and informs the stakes and concerns that drive it), where people had to build their own ramshackle shelters, where people developed gradual friendships that save each other and were mutually beneficial. All of these things take time, and Kelly Reichardt brilliantly attunes us to those rhythms by slowing everything down to the proper momentum.

As I said, I was utterly enveloped by this film. I cared innately about the main characters of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). I loved getting acquainted with them. I loved the business they built on deceit and robbery (King-Lu convinces Cookie to covertly milk the only cow in the region, which belongs to the de facto mayor of the settlement played by Toby Jones, in the middle of the night and use that milk to make desserts to sell to the townsfolk). If nothing else, this movie made my wife and I hungry for deep-fried doughnuts. Cookie's creations in this movie look simple but delicious. Their con is a low-key one for a low-key film set in a region where humanity's concerns are as basic as it gets. The treats that Cookie creates are the only luxury in their lives, the only non-essential thing we see them indulge in, and that makes them of crucial importance. One gets the sense that these rudimentary doughnuts are the only thing a lot of these people have to look forward to within the drudgery of trying to survive day after day on whatever is at hand.

Of course, the longer they covertly steal milk the higher the likelihood that they will eventually be caught. You might not expect it, but this generates a lot of suspense which is only heightened as the film goes on.

I absolutely adored this movie. The friendship between Cookie and King-Lu is beautifully observed and engrossing (Magaro and Lee are excellent and have great chemistry together). The story itself is so utterly unique within cinema. For once I was seeing a story I had never seen in a place that I had never been (it reminded me a bit of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", because of the ramshackle town and, probably, the fact that frequent Altman collaborator Rene Auberjonois was part of the cast) and told in an unhurried yet spellbinding way. This is only the second film I have seen from Reichardt (the other was "Meek's Cutoff") and I liked it a lot more than the other (which was by no means bad). I will have to delve deeper into her work to see what other riches are there.

Needless to say, "First Cow" is a treasure.

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