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With: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Rene Auberjonois, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, John Keating, Dylan Smith, Manuel Rodriguez, Clayton Nemrow, Jared Kasowski
Written by: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond, based on a novel by Jonathan Raymond
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 122
Date: 03/06/2020

First Cow (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Moo Friendship

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, a man known as "Cookie" (John Magaro) forages in the woods, looking for mushrooms.

He's working as the cook for a traveling band of trappers in the early 1800s in the Pacific Northwest. The trappers are a vulgar, snarly bunch, rude and mean (and they snore).

Cookie doesn't fit in with them. While searching the underbrush he comes upon a salamander, stuck, struggling on its back. He turns it upright and sends it on its way.

It's a small moment, but it speaks volumes. It not only establishes Cookie's kindness and gentleness, but also the harshness of the world around him.

Reichardt does this without a line of dialogue, and without much work required by the actor. She maintains this tension throughout the movie, without any obvious tricks of clanging music or choppy editing.

One particular scene in which a man admires Cookie's boots — shiny and new in a muddy, grubby place — brings a suggestion of threat that lingers, but doesn't necessarily explode. Nor does it need to.

First Cow, Reichardt's seventh feature, is based on a novel by her frequent co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. Like their 2006 film Old Joy, it's the story of a male friendship set outside of the trappings of civilization, and like their 2011 film Meek's Cutoff, it takes place in the pioneer days.

In the story, Cookie meets a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee), who claims to be on the run from Russians after killing one of their number, hiding in the woods.

Cookie gives him shelter, and later, in town, they meet again. King Lu invites Cookie to his shack, and they drink and talk.

The subject of the lone cow owned by the territory's Chief Factor (Toby Jones) comes up. Cookie muses that he'd like to have some milk to make biscuits. King Lu proposes that they could simply sneak over and steal the milk at night.

They do. Before milking, Cookie strokes and speaks gently to the cow, with great respect and kindness.

With the milk, Cookie makes sweet "oily cakes" and King Lu arranges to sell them. The cakes sell out in minutes. They decide to make more. Then the Chief Factor learns about the cakes and invites the cook to make a special lunch for a visiting captain.

At its core, First Cow is a "waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop" story. But Reichardt isn't interested in suspense in the most traditional form. Indeed, she begins the movie with a modern-day prologue in which a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog find two skeletons buried in the woods.

It's not important whether Cookie and King Lu get rich, or get away with their scheme. What's more important is their journey, all the little details and the things they discuss and learn and observe along the way.

For example, it's far more satisfying to watch Cookie dust one of his cakes with a little cinnamon ("makes it nice") than it is watching he and King Lu sell it.

Moreover, it's immensely touching to see this lovely friendship growing and evolving, from an early scene in which the men separately perform chores, framed by the doorway and window, to a more complex kind of platonic love.

In the wild, First Cow suggests, men needed to be strong, but they can also be free to feel their feelings.

This simple thesis makes the movie far more than just a stodgy costume piece and ties it directly to now.

At this beginning of a new decade, Reichardt has proven herself one of the best directors working in America, and the patient, observant First Cow is good news for the future of cinema.

The Blu-ray release by Lionsgate includes a bonus DVD and a digital copy. The narrow-frame Blu-ray transfer is amazing, a must-see, with flawless audio. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles. Bonuses include "A Place in This World," a 27-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

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