‘First Cow’ grazes into a long-winded but mesmerizing underdog story

“First Cow” – “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”  – Albert Einstein

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt grew up in Miami, Fla., but you wouldn’t know it from her films.  She set “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) and “Meeks Cutoff” (2010) in Oregon, a modern-day tale and a one from 1845, respectively.  2016’s “Certain Women” took place in Montana, and her new movie “First Cow” heads back to Oregon and the 19th century.

Somewhere in the Oregon Territory wilderness, a quiet, reserved cook – appropriately nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) – travels with a group of fur trappers who look to make their fortunes.  They are big, burly men who might shoot first and ask questions later, and these pelt-prospectors generally ignore Cookie and treat him with little respect, until hunger strikes, of course.  Even then, conversations are brief and curt.

Yes, out in these parts, survival is a constantly rehearsed, daily activity.  With settlers and natives still at odds and general Darwinism practiced within sparse social circles, Cookie’s (John Magaro) mindset and physicality don’t exactly square with his environment.  All is not lost, but hope and prosperity are distant fantasies, however one day, Cookie’s luck changes.

He meets a friend, King Lu (Orion Lee), in the woods under some surprising circumstances, and they form an instant bond, one across racial lines.  King Lu is Chinese and on the run from a small assembly of Russians, and Cookie is from Maryland with lily-white, European roots.  Well, Cookie’s new compadre regularly looks for opportunities, and together they found one – but not without serious risks – in the form of a cow.

“First Cow” is an underdog story, and Reichardt sets a slow, deliberate pace throughout the picture to match Cookie’s and King Lu’s personalities.  The film sloshes and trudges in long exposition at a snail’s pace, as barely any notable events occur within the first hour within the foreign surroundings.  In fact, the story barely moves until the 61st minute of picture, because this critic glanced at his watch at the aforementioned moment.  In absence of significantly key plot points, Reichardt absolutely lays earthly imagery in the wild, forested west that will mesmerize audiences.

One perspective that will capture your attention is the absence of women.  Other than a five year-old native girl carrying buckets in and out of a tiny, muddy marketplace, one would be hard-pressed to find ladies and girls traveling or living about.  The said girl nor anyone else really smiles or has reasonable reason to either, and gloomy, misty skies always hover over the local existence.  Life is hard, where wet feet inside wet boots and dry hunger pains are the least of anyone’s worries.  Especially so for Cookie and King Lu, but they might just be the heartfelt rays of sunshine for everyone they meet.

Magaro and Lee own warm chemistry, as their awkward on-screen beings might not know the art of small talk or be in-tune with their feelings, but they silently know their now-chosen direction.  Cookie and King Lu really have no one else, when they simply joined-up for an enterprising partnership.  They are aware that their venture does have a limited shelf-life, and what begins…and travels…and travels…as an overly casual story during the first hour, becomes a tick-tock, ever-so-light thriller.  Not necessarily a thriller, but Cookie and King Lu cook roast up enough trouble, where firearms could be drawn.

Complete with hundreds of small, delicate touches, Reichardt draws an introspective, expressive tale that feels like an artifact from this harsh time and place, but one that houses two gentle souls.  Certainly an adult picture, “First Cow” embraces Cookie and King Lu’s story but it also doubles as a teaching moment about the Pacific Northwest, one in which Reichardt – by all accounts – seems to actually have a past life, as she recalls vivid memories and then places them on-screen.  Well, with her first-rate resume, she might be returning home.

⭐⭐ 1/2  out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: A24; Trailer credits: Movie Coverage

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