First Cow

First Cow ★★½

In short, this is the Oregon mud-western story of an expendable baker and a Chinese immigrant who make a business partnership selling fried biscuits to the outpost laborers with the hitch they need to steal milk for the recipe from the solo local cow. But this is a Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Night Moves”) work, and she takes short stories and tells ’em long. I had read ambiguous reviews that kept out synopsis, so what I found were more than twenty impenetrable minutes at the beginning which idles in forestry and hillbilly ambiance – has Reichardt ever aimed for setting up such exposition in under two? I’ve admired a few of Reichardt’s films (“Wendy and Lucy” is an all-timer), but I find her austerity on the whole stultifying. Her misé-en-scen, here in particular, can be squished-in and never expansive. Is it vulgar and artless, according to her, to give us a few wide angle frontier shots? I am told by one critic I respect, Jeffrey M. Anderson of combustiblecelluloid.com, to be more sensitive to the little details Riechardt inserts such as when the protagonist finds a salamander on its back and gently turns it over to send it on its way (it’s a sign of gentleness in a mostly ungentle and hostile world).

After all that grumbling of mine, I must confess the friendship between said humble leads (John Magaro and Orion Lee) began to grow on me, and then there’s curiosity in the affable but wealthy schlep Toby Jones who hasn’t a clue that his cow’s milk is being stolen from him. I cared ultimately how the story would turn out — dynamic turn out, I think not, for Reichardt aims to imitate the minimalism of Bresson — but it wouldn’t be the truth if I didn’t say I hardly feel as transported as everybody else has been by First Cow.

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