Many people have been waiting with bated breath to see the wide screen releases
of such high-profile films as The Eternals, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the new
version of Dune, and Wonder Woman 1984 ( I want to see many of these as well).
All of these films are postponed because of the Covid virus.
But on the Indy circuit, one of the most widely touted and most eagerly awaited
films was believe it or not: First Cow. This film which has gotten mostly
ecstatic reviews recently surfaced on many streaming channels including Google
Play, Red Box, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Voodoo, I Tunes, and Fandango Now (the charge
for a one time viewing on most of them is under $5:00.) It is not yet on Netflix,
but it will supposedly land there eventually as well.
Several critics have even touted First Cow as the best American film of the
year, so you may be dying to know if it is worthy of the hype. And my answer is:
pretty much. One of the big reasons I did not give it four stars was that some
parts of the film were so dark on streaming that I could barely see them , which
detracted slightly from the overall experience (I saw it on the Google Plus
platform) . But I could usually figure out what was going on, and what I saw was
beautifully developed, wholly unique and magical.
Part of the reason for the advanced hype is that it was directed by the
masterful, Kelly Reichardt who is known for making little slow-paced films shot
on location with little known actors (except she likes to work with Michelle
The films could almost be considered as a modern American take on Italian Neo
realism except the impoverished characters are not glorified like the ones in
Paisan, Rome Open City and La Terra Trema.
When she makes a Western Reichardt seems to cut out all the stuff (like gun
duels, tough guy posturing and bar fights) that many people like the most about
the genre. Perhaps it is more correct to call this an anti-western, western.
The director takes unflinching looks at the main characters and they are deeply
flawed especially the two main protagonists. The main characters are so
desperate and pathetic that almost every viewer will feel that they are well off
This film proves true a recent quotation on the show Shameless about morals
which says: “Rich people don't have 'em, and working guys like us can't afford 'em.”
First Cow is based on a novel by Jon Raymond (who co-wrote the script with
Reichardt). The movie captures the suspense of the original text and stays
mostly true to the characters, but the characters here are a little less fleshed
In a recent interview quoted in Film Comment, Reichardt even asserted that the
slow pace of the cow set the pace for the film, and the camera tried to capture
the animal’s “innocent gaze.” It is probably no coincidence that the cow is
named Eve, because she is the first cow there, and she arrives before
industrialization which can be seen as the fall from innocence or humankind’s
alienation from nature.
The film takes place in the eighteen-twenties, decades before the Civil War. The
director made it a point to set the film in an era before colonization had
gotten too evident. One of the characters even says, “History isn’t here yet”
John Magara stars as Otis "Cookie" Figowitz who recently became free from being
an indentured servant (he was helping some oppressive, demanding fur traders)
who also has considerable baking skills. He lives in a shack with King Lu (Orion
Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is wanted for murder (by a group of Russians not
the police) who badly yearns for a better life. Both men are at the end of the
line with few prospects, resources or skills that would aid in their survival
The roommates decide to team up for an ambitious scam. Every night they come to
secretly steal milk from the only cow in the area while the owner (who is
somewhat clueless in his upper-class arrogance) wonders why his cow produces so
Cookie uses the milk to produce fried cakes, or scones and the demand quickly
exceeds the supply. They try to sell as many as they can in a short period
because they are afraid of the local official (Toby Jones) who owns the cow will
catch on which almost seems inevitable.
The antiheros’ friendship and their determination make the losers likeable while
the comparatively rich guy who owns the cow comes off as pretentious, privileged
and ignorant. He is far more concerned with having the right kind of tea at his
party or the fashions in Paris than all the inequality and suffering around him.
The film may be slow paced for most viewers, and some will certainly be put off
by the director’s less is more/minimalist style. So little happens in the film
that one of the early highlights is a man turning over a lizard over and another
is of a man having a long one sided conversation with the title cow (he wants to
know how she feels about the tragic loss of her mate.)
Many current films have an overabundance of quick cuts that they seemed designed
for viewers with A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). But this film is more in
the tradition of such foreign films as In the Mood for Love and Climates because
there is so little action that every little occurrence takes an added monumental
The ending left me unsatisfied, but I have a feeling that this might be exactly
what the director intended (one critic said that Kelly Reichart’s films don’t
end they dissolve) . Seeing this film is like having a small meal that does not
quite fill you that leaves you wanting more.
Many of the attributes which will prevent the film from reaching a wide audience
or pleasing most viewers are precisely the ones that make the film more
The film serves as a fine corrective to classic Westerns like High Noon and
Shane (in a different way that Good Fellas de-romanticized the gangster film)
because rather than glorifying the past, it depicts the old west as being as
miserable and dispiriting as it might have been.