First Cow

First Cow ★★★★

Per usual, Kelly Reichardt hits the bullseye at a conservative fifteen miles and hour with First Cow, an historical drama that does indeed pick up in certain places but all with the sensibility of its auteur as its North Star. It’s fitting though, as Reichardt has made a career out of the tumultuous yet beautifully still Oregon territory, and this one is certainly no different in its study of the diverse population that inhabits its perplexing environment. What is different about First Cow, though, is Reichardt's devoted interest in the state's rich history, especially in how seemingly inconsequential and, in this case, lost stories have quite literally shaped the ground that modern Oregonians walk upon. This is not her first historical period piece, of course. Meek's Cutoff examined the dangerous folly of the Oregon Trail and the reticence of newcomers to trust the wisdom of those that they hope to displace. We've already made it to the Land of Abundance with First Cow, however, and Reichardt's adaptation of frequent collaborator Jon Raymond's novel The Half Life is more focused on survival in said land than the fatalistic journey to it. The story of Cookie Figowitz, a struggling cook without a plan, and King Lu, a Chinese world traveler, is entirely based upon their shared desire to prosper. They position themselves early on as have-nots with enough wit and panache to rule the region, with a little help from the titular animal, indeed the first of many cows soon to arrive in the territory. Cookie and Lu recognize the flourishing of an eventual market, and by hook or crook, they are determined to capitalize before it is too late. But their clandestine and illegal doings are not simply for the sake of getting ahead, but literally for keeping their heads above water long enough to seek out something better. Their displeasure with being kept down for too long is only natural, and in some ways heroic. But, as you'll likely glean from the opening, things don't really work out for them. Such is the frontier life.

Ultimately, First Cow is as timeless in its themes as it is inextricably tied to the true-blue pioneer spirit, a love letter to those thankless and long forgotten upstarts who paved the way for us. This is not to say that Reichardt hits the target as straight on as she has in other films, however, as this one feels even a tad too mainstream for its own good. Yet, it not only makes a fine edition to her career-spanning expose on the everyday working-class, but maybe even coalesces as a succinct distillation of her brand for those just stopping by her cozy little campfire for a visit. Stay awhile and you might really see something.

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