FIRST COW
(***½)-VITO CARLI

"... beautifully developed, wholly unique and magical."

That's Some Fresh Milk

(080820) 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 Williams).

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 in comparison.

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 out.

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 little milk.

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 significance.

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 memorable.

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.
 

Directed by:   Kelly Reichardt
Written by:   Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on Raymond's novel "The Half-Life"
Starring:   John Magaro, Toby Jones, Orion Lee
Released:   03/06/2020 (theatrically), currently on several streaming platforms
Length:   121 minutes
Rating:   PG13 for brief strong language

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

FIRST COW  © 2020  IAC Films
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.