'First Cow': Film Review | Telluride 2019

First Cow Still 1 - A24 Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of A24

'First Cow'

Hypnotic and beautiful.

Kelly Reichardt again goes off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, this time in early 19th century Oregon, in a delicate depiction of male friendship adapted from Jon Raymond's novel, 'The Half-Life.'

In a series of gorgeous scenes that punctuate Kelly Reichardt's quietly penetrating account of life on the Oregon Trail in the pioneer fur-trading days, a diffident baker played by John Magaro speaks in soothing tones to the placid heifer that gives First Cow its title, establishing mutual trust as he extracts a pail of milk from her each night. Those clandestine encounters feed the gentle rhythms of this miniaturist Western, the latest entry in the narratively spare but volubly expressive filmography of a director who has often observed the unique connection between people and animals with a gaze of singular tenderness — not to be confused with cute sentimentality.

Human connection is the principal driver, however, in this evocative portrait of male friendship and loyalty flowering in the rugged wilderness. Adapted from one of the parallel narrative strands in Jon Raymond's 2004 debut novel The Half-Life, the new film continues a collaboration between Reichardt and the Oregon author and screenwriter that has included Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves and Old Joy, to which First Cow might almost be a companion piece. It shares the enveloping sense of place of those earlier works, as well as the perceptive eye for subtle character details that makes Reichardt's world such a transporting place. The A24 release should further expand this distinctive director's devoted following.

Raymond's book twins the 1820s story with an alternating thread, set in the 1980s, in which a pair of teenage girls in a holdover counterculture commune outside Portland discover two skeletons buried on the property, setting in motion a mystery reaching back 160 years. In a choice of characteristic Reichardtian economy, all that remains of that here is a brief prologue in which a young woman (Alia Shawkat) is wandering in the woods when her dog sniffs out a human skull. First with a stick, then with her bare hands, she digs in the soft earth until she uncovers the bones of two men, lying side by side.

Subdued notes of suspense come into play as the movie progresses, amplified by the needling strings and unsettling drone sounds of William Tyler's acoustic score. But Reichardt has no interest in the kind of conventional storytelling that requires clues and revelations building to an explicatory conclusion. Instead, she simply lays out the pieces with great sensitivity and restraint, leaving the audience to make the association between the film's haunting final image and its almost wordless opening. In retrospect, that picture of death acquires a strange serenity.

Magaro plays Otis Figowitz, known as Cookie; he has signed on as cook for a party of fur-trappers whose roughneck nature and thinning provisions make the meek, soft-spoken outsider a target for abuse. We learn that Cookie lost his mother at birth and his father at a young age in Maryland and has been on the move ever since, at one time apprenticed to a baker in Boston. But even without that information, Magaro's exquisitely observed performance and his sad-sack face convey both the character's isolation and his compassion, as well as his Thoreauvian respect for the untamed nature in which he forages for mushrooms, berries and the occasional squirrel.

That dense green environment is captured with understated beauty and stillness in the images of Reichardt's regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, working in the intimate 4:3 aspect ratio used in the silent era.

When Cookie first encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), the well-spoken, clearly educated Chinese immigrant is naked and hungry, hiding in the woods from some Russians who want to kill him. Cookie doesn't question the stranger's version of the events that led him there; instead, he brings him food and water, and conceals him from his trapper band as they move downriver until King-Lu can get away safely.

The two men meet again by chance some time later in a bar at the rustic Royal West Pacific Trading Post (production designer Anthony Gasparro's ramshackle buildings on muddy grounds are like something out of Deadwood). King-Lu invites Cookie to his shack in the woods to share a bottle of whiskey, and the spontaneous domesticity of the scene instantly suggests the thin line separating friendship from love. While King-Lu builds a fire, Cookie picks up a birch broom and sweeps the floor, shakes out a dusty rug and gathers some foliage to place in a jar. Without words, Reichardt provides a vignette to illustrate succinctly the William Blake analogy that opens the movie: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship."

The arrival of a dairy cow by boat from California into this rural backwater of new settlers is an almost surreal event, though it's witnessed in the director's typically uninflected manner. The cow belongs to the local English landowner and mercantile overseer known by his title, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who lives with his Native American wife (Lily Gladstone, so wonderful in Reichardt's Certain Women) in a relatively fancy home for the time and place.

Cookie, by now cohabiting with King-Lu, notes how good it would be to have some milk to make buttermilk biscuits and the business-minded Chinese man responds by simply asking what other ingredients he would require. With no further discussion shown, the pair begin making regular nocturnal forays to the pasture by the Chief Factor's house; King-Lu keeps watch from a tree while Cookie milks the large brown cow, patting the animal's furry flanks as she shoots an acquiescent gaze over her shoulder at him.

Their first experiment selling a small batch of biscuits in the marketplace proves an instant success, with demand increasing every day as they return with more stocks. Shots of dough sizzling in a frypan and then being removed, golden brown, and drizzled with honey, convey the welcome delivery of a rare home comfort to a place where those are few. These scenes also offer wry commentary on the foundations of American enterprise, with the two men seizing on an opportunity to provide a valued commodity, even if it entails some degree of dishonesty.

When the Chief Factor becomes an appreciative customer, wistfully sighing "I taste London" as he bites into a steaming biscuit, there's droll humor in King-Lu's assertion that the Englishman is too smug ever to suspect his inferiors of thievery, or even question the supposed secret Chinese ingredient that makes the "oil cakes" so tasty. It seems significant that the Chief Factor addresses only Cookie in their transactions and barely even appears to see King-Lu.

Cookie gets nervous about their scheme, but King-Lu nudges him to start filling the bucket with more milk, enabling them to make more biscuits and increase their earnings — the plan being to save enough money to allow them to resettle and set up shop in San Francisco. Somewhat reluctantly, Cookie agrees to make a berry clafoutis so the pretentious Chief Factor can impress a visiting Captain (Scott Shepherd). The latter proves a sharper-eyed observer than his host, but ultimately, that's not what sabotages Cookie and King-Lu's pastry operation.

Another filmmaker might almost have treated the biscuit business as caper comedy or played up the foreboding of tragedy, and there are indeed muted elements of both here. But Reichardt folds it all into an authentic depiction of the realities of pioneer life, grounded in the lovely portrait of an unlikely relationship based on mutual trust, understanding and unspoken affection. The milieu comes vividly alive, sketching in the interactions of hunters, traders, itinerants, settlers and the Native Americans that occupy the fringes, their differences marked in April Napier's period costumes.

The attention to character in the faces alone is remarkable, from beloved veteran Rene Auberjonois as a crusty loner with a pet crow to Ewen Bremner as a blustery military flunky with a passion for cribbage and a Scottish brogue he possibly hasn't laid on so thickly since Trainspotting. Jones makes the Chief Factor a pompous twit without resorting to caricature, while Shepherd is similarly measured in conveying the Captain's sense of smart superiority. An exchange in which the Captain recounts dealing with a mutiny and the Chief Factor extols severe punishment or even death as "a highly motivating spectacle for the indolent" acknowledges the brutality on which the country was built.

But the beating heart of the film is Magaro and Lee, the rapport between their polar-opposite characters so believable that our anxiety mounts when they're separated and our spirits are lifted when their bond is reaffirmed. The terrific Magaro's characterization is so shy and humble it might be called self-effacing, though he fully communicates both the history and the emotional depths of this quiet man. Lee, who has a background on prestigious English and Irish stages, gives King-Lu a shrewd touch of inscrutability, but his warmth, pragmatism and mercurial mind make him an engaging character.

While not a lot happens in First Cow by the standards of most two-hour narrative films, and some may wish for a less open-ended conclusion, the drama's rough-edged lyricism kept me rapt the entire time.

Production companies: Filmscience, A24, IAC Films
Distributor: A24
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenwriters: Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, based on Raymond's novel The Half-Life
Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Louise Lovegrove, Christopher Carroll
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Anthony Gasparro
Costume designer: April Napier
Music: William Tyler
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Casting: Gayle Keller
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Rated PG-13, 122 minutes