First Cow (2020)

Despite its anticlimactic finale, FC’s a gentle-and-refined directorial tale of 1820’s pastoral manifest destiny, foundations of American capitalism, masculinity, & natural/human friendships by a grassroots Reichardt love-letter to film’s lost genre: westerns. 8.5/10.

Plot Synopsis: Two travellers, on the run from a band of vengeful hunters in the 1820s Northwest, dream of striking it rich — but their tenuous plan to make their fortune on the frontier comes to rely on the secret use of a landowner’s prized dairy cow.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Official CLC Review

A Lost Genre Of Film

One Of The Best & Most Sorely-Missed Genres Of 1900’s Filmmaking Only Returns Sporadically – Here With Reichardt Simplicity

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

From the 1930’s first-popularizing the genre to high-1960’s perfecting the craft, Westerns enjoyed a renaissance of filmmaking that still holds esteemed whistle-tuned, gunsmoked status in the all-time cinematic discussions of genre achievements. Modern times have seen the frontier-justice, hypermasculine epoch of storytelling fall on harder times than Route 66 – all-but-nonexistent genre entries in the single-digits [if even] released yearly and, besides a couple of masterpiece standouts like Django Unchained, Birds Of Passage, and True Grit (2010), overshadowed. Kelly Reichardt has come riding in [cowgirl lasso-twirling and all] to deliver some bonafide resurgence and signature gentle-simplicity to this bygone style – and it comes like cold rain to sun-baked desert sands after a years-long drought. Despite its bizarre anticlimactic finale, First Cow is a gentle-and-refined directorial tale of 1820’s pastoral manifest destiny, foundations of American capitalism, masculinity, and natural/human friendships by a grassroots Reichardt love-letter to film’s lost genre: westerns.

The Cinematography & Score

A Film That Doesn’t Look Quite Like Any Other Genre Piece – A Naturalized & Lush, Nostalgic, Silent Exhibition Of Show-Not-Tell

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

From the opening twangy bluegrass guitar notes and Times New Roman font of the opening credits, the film establishes its Americana and tranquility themes. However, the film barely reads like a classical-western visually; the lush, verdant greens of The Oregon Territory and a primal/untouched early-west look like a film out of time – complete with a dark tint, coarse filter adding some classic-genre ruggedness, and peculiar Blauvert cinematography comprised of extreme long shots, geometrial bissections, and 4:3 aspect ratio. The visual canvas works in-tandem with the score [or better: lack of one] to continue a modern trend noticably-appraised back in 2019’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire: the sound-of-silence. Besides the diegetic background noise of rustling fall leaves and waves crashing on a lake juxtaposed with frolocking harps as our protagonist picks mushrooms and traverses these gorgeous woods, the film is lacking in sound – and all the better for it. The decision works thematically and, just as it did with POALOF, gives special highlight to the show-not-tell refinement and words it does choose sparingly and capably instead of overbelaboring with dialogue, challenging the viewer to pay attention and construct the plot on their own.

The Brotherhood & Masculinity Exposition

A Refreshing Delve Into The Lighter Side Of Masculinity In An Age Of Movies Loving To Demonize It; A Friendship Duo Of Warmth & Gentility

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

As we’re introduced to our protagonists in the gentlest of naturalized ways in the forest, First Cow’s thematic establishments are perhaps just as subversive and cooly-refreshing as its sensory ones: brotherhood and exposition on a lighter side of masculinity. In a cinematic and social-media fueled age that loves to demonize men & masculinity as some evil/toxic poison we criminally-possess [through no biological choice of our own], it’s damn appreciative to see a modern film shine a positive light on it and recognize its historical significance. Many may think of men as Arnold Schwarzenegger of Sylvester Stallone, but the truth is: the vast majority of us are more like Cookie and King Lu. Cookie’s gentility, shyness, compassion for nature, and bullied sentimentality/chip-on-his-shoulder and King Lu’s calculating, limitlessly-ambitious despite his poor-class status, capitalistic-soul, immigrant dreamer are two fantastic characters that are highly-indicative of many masculine archetypes outside the hero and showcase the care, hunger [both literal and figuritive], bravery, heroicism, work ethic, and gentility capable in masculinity that barely ever gets its due in the public eye – even more appreciably: a woman being the one to understand and give credit in Kelly Reichardt. The two converge for a brotherhood dynamic that carries the film and warm blanket of storytelling in the cold savage forests of primordial America – as they align for a joint business-venture of manifest destiny.. with help from a brown maiden and her milk.

The Cow

The Eponymous Brown, High-Pedigree Heifer From Brittany Steals The Show – The First Cow In The Oregon Territory & Crux Of Its Events

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

The eponymous first cow to make its way into the community steals the show from the scene we first see her gliding in on a barge. A beautiful brown maiden from high-pedigree British origins, the cow is a brilliant metaphorization of the resources and raw materials needed to make a living in America: wasted on the rich & nobility having only-access to them but not even needing or knowing what to do with them like Chief Factor, and out-of-reach by the lower working-class/blue-collar visionaries who could create something special with it – as Cookie and King-Lu do. The film works on multiple levels when it comes to its oily cakes business: Marxism, anti-classism, hunger, and capitalism thematization. Hunger is a huge running theme through the entirety of the film: driving the actions of all characters through its first 1/3’s survival in the harsh and brutalistic Darwinist nature of the west and giving inspiration for the business that would follow, being sick of water-and-flour bread and wanting some real delectable treats by way of Cookie’s bakery experience. The protagonist duo reaches that breaking stage wherein the benefits outweigh the risks and illegally-siphon milk from Chief Factor’s cow in the middle of the night – and realize they’ve created something delicious and profitable they can sell like hot cakes at the local food market.

The Business & American Dream Thematization

A Masterclass In Cinematic Economics & Start-Up Venturism Juxtaposed With Pure Underdog Joy & Marxism As Oily-Cakes Sell Like Hotcakes

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

Through the lens of Cookie and King-Lu’s oily cakes business, First Cow dissects with magnificent exposition The American Dream and start-up capitalism. The immigrant ambition and out-of-reach status of the resources needed to make such an instant-hit success scathingly-indicts capitalism’s classist foundationalism. The taking of the resources from those who have plenty has Robin Hood and Marxist undertones, and catalyzes a potential-rich business idea that still requires some launching off the grounds. They test teh waters of the market and their product, at first being met with no one wanting to try it – until a white lie about a chinese ‘secret recipe’ adds the perfect hint of panache and salesmanship to intrigue the average consumer, who is then hooked. They can’t keep the product on the metaphorical shelves as lines start to stretch around the block and everyone from miles around pays exorbitant prices for the last batch – and Chief Factor himself tries and falls in love with the product in the ultimate twist of ironic subversion, ‘tasting London in the cake’ [made by stealing from him]. There is cogitation on target demographics, exhaustion of a client-base/location, the dual-edged sword of location being easier to fidn customers where there’s more traffic but also being met with more competition from like-minded predecessors, and management’s punishment in the presence of a mutiny/HR-disaster weighing loss of labor vs. gain of labor from those who witness the scolding are all masterfully-tackled through Reichardt’s simplistic and reductionist lens on the exterior still holding plenty of honey treats within for those who look hard enough.

The Ending & Name-Choice

A Bizarre & Anticlimactic Finale Stumbling Around The Woods Failing To Resolve Many Of Its Arc – And, Of Course, That Name

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

There are also potent themes of nature and frienship within the film: Cookie respects nature and its creatures in the beginning, and they save him from certain death in the manhunt in the end; the film breathes heavily on its feel-good human friendship between its brotherhood duo and natural one in the lovefest between Cookie and the cow; the natural gifts of a dog’s nose and cow’s udder produce two crucial sensory parts: digging up the bones at the beginning and the milk that sets the screenplay’s events into motion. The finale is about the only thing in the film I really didn’t like – besides the slow-pacing characteristic of Reichardt’s films that we don’t mind, but many mainstream audiences might not like, and the admittedly-lame name [it just sounds laughably uncool: ‘The Oscar goes to… First Cow!’ ‘Did you guys see the masterpiece of First Cow this weekend? Yikes, but here we are]. The ending is a mess: predictable in Cookie and King-Lu getting caught after pushing the envelope too much [also stupid after just having closed-quarters meeting with their cow in front of the man they’re stealing from], 15-20 minutes overlong, not featuring the cow enough, and anticlimactic stumbling around the woods while also leaving the entire story ambiguous on what happened to the two after they rested. We’d like to think that the duo got out and made it to San Francisco and finally opened that bakery/hotel and achieved their American Dream, but the evidence points to them being killed by the two skeletons found at the beginning of the film being found in the exact same position/pose as Cookie and KL’s in the final shot of resting. Either way, the film disappoints in its finale and could’ve better used its back-half.

Conclusion

A Purely-Reichardt Brotherhood Tale

Despite Its Bizarre Anticlimactic Ending, FC Is A Gentle-And-Refined Directorial 1820’s Pastoral Tale Of Manifest Destiny, Grassroots Capitalism, Masculinity, & Natural Friendship

Photograph Courtesy Of: A24 Productions

Overall, First Cow is [yet another] winner from A24. A bluegrass-twangy, gently-directed 1820’s pastoral tale of refinement and tenderness weaved through exposition on The American Dream, Reichardt’s signature directorial style punctuates this diegetically-serenaded parable that looks and feels different than any picture of the lost-genre of film it invokes. The thematization is heavy on intellectually-advanced topics: manifest destiny, foundations of American capitalism, immigrant/classism roadblocks in pursuit of that dream, brotherhood, masculinity, and natural/human friendships – prismatically-metaphorized through Cookie and King-Liu’s oily-cakes business. The performances and characterization are good, lighter side of masculinity refreshing to see in a cinematic age that loves to demonize us, and cinematography full of idiosyncratic constructions juxtaposing a sound-of-silence score that chooses physicality and action to overbelaboring with words. The ending is a mess in the inevitable act of getting caught even average audiences could predict and 15-20 minute overstretching of its anticlimactic stumbling through the woods – one that barely fits in the eponymous cow at all or gives their business and the point of the tale a meaningful ending. However, the phenomenal first 2/3 and its magalogue of complex weighty themes handled nicely by a sure-handed Reichardt is good enough to overshadow its finale’s bizarre non-resolution screenwriting-prospectus in what’s foremost a pleasure to see this genre on-screen again. Despite its bizarre anticlimactic finale, First Cow is a gentle-and-refined directorial tale of 1820’s pastoral manifest destiny, foundations of American capitalism, masculinity, and natural/human friendships by a rejuvenating grassroots Reichardt love-letter to film’s lost genre: westerns.

Official CLC Score: 8.5/10