Review: First Cow

Score: A-

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rated: PG-13

Kelly Reichardt is known for her slow, often devastating portrayals of people on the brink in the American West. First Cow is no different, but she lets a little sliver of light in. There's a little more hope here, and that might be enough to call it her best film yet.

John Magaro stars as Cookie, a traveling cook who's just finished a long haul with a group of drunken, aggressive fur trappers. With no clue of where he'll go or what he'll do next, he strikes up a friendship with King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant he showed kindness to on his journeys. Their partnership will end up being both lucrative and dangerous.

With the arrival of the titular bovine, owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones), Lu gets the bright idea to steal milk one night so they can enjoy some cakes. When they decide to sell their treats at the market, they cause a frenzy, requiring more heists. The escalating scheme causes suspicion to grow from Factor and a visiting Army Captain (Scott Shepherd).

There's not much more to the film, and that's what gives it power. This is a very simple story, but there are so many rich details and so many wonderful performances. The friendship between Cookie and Lu is a combination of loneliness and opportunity, but their loyalty to each other never feels in doubt, even when circumstances separate them.

This is also a film about capitalism. Even in the wild west, there's a clear hierarchy and people at the bottom can't even get to that first rung. Their modest dreams – owning a bakery and hotel – are dreams just out of reach without a serious influx of cash. And their skills could never be turned into anything beyond subsistence. This would make a great double feature with Hustlers.

Gorgeous 4x3 cinematography and top-notch production design are the honey and cinnamon on top of the treat that is this film. And its last 20 minutes are as exciting as any action movie, even if what preceded it is anything but. All that makes First Cow a movie to savor.

*This film is currently available via On-Demand platforms.

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About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.