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First Cow
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

In her latest picture, Kelly Reichardt returns to the 19th century period of her best film Meek’s Cutoff to tell a different kind of frontier story. First Cow follows the friendship between a cook (John Magaro), who travels with fur trappers to the Oregon Territory, and an ambitious Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) he meets in a mining camp. When they discover that a wealthy British landowner (Toby Jones) has brought a cow into the territory—so that he can have milk in his tea—they hit upon an idea for a small business and begin to put down temporary roots. The film delivers another simple micro-story from Reichardt that manages to cover a wealth of themes with very few characters and only a handful of narrative beats.

The less said about this director’s films before seeing them (and after, really) the better. Her movies deliver rewarding cinematic experiences for viewers who enjoy a deliberate pace and a subtext that isn’t spoon-fed. One thing I will say about First Cow is that it has more laughs than any prior Reichardt picture. It is also less of a slice of life than most of her work, with a narrative that unfolds like a parable of American style supply and demand economics. But it is also, like most of her pictures, about a friendship forged at the margins of society.

Once again, Reichardt’s principal collaborator is author Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay based loosely on his historical novel The Half-Life (though there is no cow in Raymond’s expansive novel). The film opens with a quote William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell,” which could adorn many of this director’s films: “The bird, a nest, the spider, a web, man friendship.” First Cow depicts a harsh world, but there is something comforting about spending time with the characters that inhabit it.

Twitter Capsule:
Reichardt once again explores an abundance of themes in miniature with this simple story about an unlikely friendship and business partnership set in the Oregon frontier of the 19th-century.

Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Produced by Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, and Vincent Savino

Screenplay by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Based on the novel The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond

With: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, and Alia Shawkat

Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Music: William Tyler

Runtime: 121 min
Release Date: 06 March 2020
Aspect Ratio: 1.37 : 1
Color