While never recognized at the box office, writer/director Kelly Reichardt has developed into a beloved auteur through her unique transcendentalism lens. Assured offerings like Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff display a refreshingly restrained approach, rendering thoughtful character dynamics while entrenching audiences in a unique environmental setting. Her latest big-screen feature First Cow steeps audiences into Oregon frontier life with winning results, crafting a masterful portrait that ranks as the year’s first noteworthy achievement.
First Cow follows Cookie (John Margo), a soft-spoken loner who travels out west to achieve his dream of operating a bed and breakfast hotel. One day, he stumbles upon King-Lu (Orion Lee), an immigrant trying to make his way in America. The two form a bond that transforms them into business partners, stealing milk from a wealthy landowner’s cow to bake delectable goods for the locals.
Few craftsmen are able to envelop their audience into a setting like Reichardt, wisely opting for a 4:3 aspect ratio to portray her grounded narrative. After an opening tracking shot that portrays the enormity of modern technology, Reichardt cleverly contrasts these frames with her low-key period setting, with intimate camerawork steeping itself in the finite details of the natural world. Every shot is immaculate in its delivery (big props to Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography), conveying the lingering wonderment and danger present in frontier life while intimately portraying the character’s perspective. Whether it’s through William Tyler’s quaint score or first-rate production design, Reichardt establishes an immersive landscape that breathes with life in a way most period pieces can’t equal.
At the center of First Cow’s uniquely-fitted setting is two of the year’s most accomplished performances. John Magaro has established himself as a beloved character actor (his work in Overlord, Liberal Arts, and Not Fade Away are some of my favorites), but here he elevates to impressive new heights. As Cookie, Magaro unearths a quiet sensitivity that renders the character’s persona with profound depth, displaying a loner with an earnest yearning for connection in a dog-eat-dog world. His introspective dynamic is well-matched by King-Lu’s charming delivery, with Orion Lee bringing the character’s idealistic spirit to life with cunning intelligence and emotional vulnerability. Cookie and King-Lu’s bond is never painted with overly-broad strokes, allowing the kindred spirits to grow naturally onscreen through restrained conversation. It’s poignant to watch these two gradually develop into the sole supportive staple in each other’s lives, with the actor conveying a dynamic that feels uniquely lived-in.
First Cow seems deceptively simple at first glance, but its distinctly Americana approach unearths the respective allures and dangers of the “American Dream”. It’s a joyous experience to watch Cookie and King-Lu find success in their barren landscape, with Cookie finally being granted the opportunity to convert his aspirations into reality (those oily cakes looked scrumptious). Reichardt’s well-established optimism quickly fades as the narrative enters its third act, with the duo’s business enterprise becoming a hopeless endeavor once rich elites begin to foil their plan. Reichardt’s deft narrative offers a timeless commentary on America’s capitalist system, which restricts those at the bottom of the food chain from escaping their doomed reality while the rich profit off their failures.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a masterful achievement, with the writer/director unearthing an enriching experience from Cookie and King-Lu’s complex journey for prosperity.
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