First Cow: Film Review

First Cow

Courtesy of A24

I have been reading high praise for Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow for months and months, basically since its premiere at Telluride last year, but I remained cautious as her previous film, Certain Women, didn’t work for me at all. First Cow is a huge improvement upon its predecessor but also not as amazing as the critical acclaim would suggest.

The film is set in Oregon in 1820 and tells the story of Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro), a skilled cook who has joined a group of fur trappers. One day, he meets a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) and they become friends, with Cookie expressing his desire to one day open a bakery. When Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy Englishman in the settlement, gets a cow, the first cow in the region, Cookie and Lu come up with a business plan – take some of the cow’s milk during the night to make baked goods to sell the following day.

Like Certain Women, I really struggled to cope with the pacing of First Cow – it is so slow that I couldn’t get into the narrative, didn’t care about it, and really had to try hard and focus, to resist the urge to reach for my phone or close my eyes. Reichardt is known for her minimalist work and First Cow is just as sparse as her other films – I liked the story but it really didn’t need to be told over two hours. It’s so simple it could have been 90 minutes or even less.

The first half was the most challenging as not much happens and it feels rather dull but rest assured your patience will be rewarded. The second half, basically from when the duo starts to make baked goods for Chief Factor, gets interesting and the story’s pace really picks up from there. The tension starts to build as you know it’s inevitable their milk-stealing scheme will be discovered but you don’t know when, how, or what the consequences will be. It actually becomes quite exciting and the pay-off is worth it in the end. It’s a shame it’s so long and the first half is so slow-moving because I would have been far more positive about this film otherwise.

Magaro is a likeable lead and you want him to succeed. He strikes up a cute rapport with the cow, talking to her as he milks her, and I liked his unlikely friendship with Lu. Jones and Ewen Bremner were strong additions to the cast, while Lily Gladstone and Alia Shawkat have small roles.

First Cow didn’t do it for me like it has with many many other critics as I can’t cope with films being this slow and sparse. However, I cannot fault the storytelling in the second half and came to really enjoy the story.

In cinemas from Friday 28th May and on MUBI from 9th July

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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