First Cow

Review by Rich Cline | 4.5/5   MUST must see SEE

First Cow
dir Kelly Reichardt
scr Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
prd Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
with John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Rene Auberjonois, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Smith, Manuel Rodriguez, Clayton Nemrow
release US 6.Mar.20
19/US A24 2h02

jones bremner shawkat

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lee and magaro
With her fine sense of character and place, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt tells a story of friendship in the 1820s Oregon territory. The setting is so strongly evoked that we quickly adapt to peculiar rhythms of life that are skilfully evoked by the gifted cast, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and composer William Tyler. Reichardt has an uncanny attention to detail, recounting an engaging, unhurried tale in a way that's elemental and timeless.
The under-appreciated cook for a gruff team of fur trappers, Cookie (Magaro) is foraging for food when he discovers a scared, naked man in the forest and offers him clothes and shelter. King-Lu (Lee) is an immigrant from China fleeing from Russians after killing one of them in self-defence. Later, Cookie meets him again at an outpost, and they share their dreams for the future. Then they spot a cow and steal some milk, which sparks an idea to go into business selling biscuits that quickly become hugely popular. And this brings new challenges.
The film opens as a woman (Shawkat) discovers two human skeletons on the banks of a large river, which allows the story to unfold either as a flashback or as her imaginative flight-of-fancy. It doesn't really matter which. The events that unfold have an earthy kick of authenticity, brimming with warm wit, gentle surprises and some terrific slow-burn suspense as they are hired to bake something for the wealthy man (Jones) who owns the cow. And everything that happens adds more depth to the characters themselves.

These people are brought to life with vivid personalities, even as everything remains understated, with much more revealed through their actions than their words. Magaro and Lee give Cookie and King-Lu the same easy-going approach to life, keeping busy with jobs at hand while trying to remain out of view of the more predatory men around them. The journey these two likeable opportunists take is involving, punctuated by incidents that shift their fortunes. The figures around them have their own stories, which register strongly in passing.

King-Lu has a wonderful sense of his place in the history of this emerging wilderness, learning the indigenous language and knowingly blending his Chinese customs with both the local ones and those brought in by the European interlopers. Reichardt cleverly grounds the story in this melting pot, as it were, making some powerful points without needing to say anything obvious. So the subtle commentary on the gulf between the haves and have-nots has strong resonance.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 30.Dec.20

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