Telluride Film Review: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ Is a Tale of Friendship On the Frontier

2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Fans of Kelly Reichardt’s past work (most notably her grim western “Meek’s Cutoff”) are sure to be excited about her latest endeavor, “First Cow.” Reichardt returns to the western frontier with a simple tale of friendship starring John Magaro (“The Big Short”) and newcomer Orion Lee.

“First Cow” is set in the 1800s and was filmed almost exclusively outside of Portland, Oregon. Cookie Figowitz (Magaro) is a cook working for a fur trading company who has dreams of running his own bakery. He is a loner, different from the volatile men in his party who have a penchant for getting drunk and fighting with one another. While picking mushrooms deep in the forest, he encounters King Lu (Lee), a naked Chinese immigrant on the run from a group of Russians who seek vengeance for the friend they suspect Lu murdered. With the slightest trepidation, Cookie and Lu’s unlikely friendship begins to take hold. Lu’s cunning and sharp salesmanship and Cookie’s superb baking skills allow their newly formed relationship to flourish into a lucrative business venture. With only a single cow in the territory (owned by Toby Jones, who plays the the camp inspector), the pair must sneak away nightly to steal milk in order to keep their business going.

For those familiar with Reichardt’s work, it is no surprise to hear that “First Cow” takes its time to build the story. Her slow approach invites viewers to take a closer look and discover the world she is building around her characters. Each scene is measured and deliberate. While this can oftentimes cause her films to dawdle, there is beauty in the realms she brings to light. “First Cow” is occasionally hilarious, and oftentimes very quiet. She uses the scenery to tell her story, and the silences are regularly full of contemplation as well as liveliness.

“First Cow” is beautifully shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, a frequent collaborator of Reichardt’s. The Pacific Northwest is handsomely captured in some of the more hushed moments.

Magaro handles his role of the introverted loner effectively, but Lee is the standout of the film. He intuitively balances his character’s naivety and savvy in a way that always leaves the audience wondering how much we can trust him. Lee’s theatre background—in the National Theatre of Scotland, Abbey Theatre (National Theatre of Ireland), Royal Court, American Repertory Theatre and the West End—is evident and could help catapult the English actor’s career. We look forward to seeing what he does next.

While “First Cow” tends to meander at times, it is filled with lighthearted humor that the audience routinely seemed to enjoy. The second act is the high-point. I wish we could have traded a little more time living in the high-humored business portion of the story in turn for less moseying through the wilderness. It felt like this was the most effective, yet least invested, segment. At the heart of the film is a story of an implausible friendship, and when it focuses on that, “First Cow” is a triumph.

“First Cow” is distributed by A24 and will play next at the New York Film Festival. No wide release date scheduled at the moment.

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