It’s hard to believe that even with the current pandemic affecting film distributions worldwide that Oscar buzz has persisted as one new on demand release is being touted as the first true contender for a best picture nomination. “First Cow” is a highly praised new drama from A24, one of my favorite distributors, that originally saw a very limited run on the big screen in March but has since gained much more attention on demand in July. Telling the story of a pair of men, one a loner and skilled cook and the other a Chinese immigrant with worldly knowledge, who attempt to work their way out of lives of poverty in the 1820s American Pacific Northwest by leaching off of the milk of a nearby wealthy Englishman. Directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on the novel “The Half Life” by Jonathan Raymond, “First Cow” is being touted as the first great film of 2020. Let’s see if I agree.
“First Cow” stars John Magaro as Cookie, a loner cook, and Orion Lee as King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant, who stumble upon each other and bond. The two learn that the settlement’s first milking cow has arrived to serve the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones), an Englishman who is the only properly housed and prosperous individual in the region. King-Lu concocts a plan to steal the milk from the cow every night to use in Cookie’s recipes with the goal of selling the treats to dig themselves out of poverty and chase the American Dream. It’s an engaging narrative that puts the spotlight on modern themes in a historical setting layered with engrossing atmosphere, engaging cinematography and a crew of actors who own the subtleties and humanity of their characters well.
Now I’ve honestly never seen any of Kelly Reichardt’s films before “First Cow”. She comes highly recommended and from what I understand this film embraces many of her trademarks including focusing on working class characters and embracing a minimalist filming style showcasing a fully realized world that transports you right back to the 1820s and the harsh conditions and hopelessness that persevered during that time. “First Cow’s” familiar story elements might be it’s most damning attributes as it has a lot in common with the 2020 Best Picture winner “Parasite”, but I argue this actually helps the film rather than hurting it. These similarities are merely coincidental once you compare narratives, settings, characters and motivations. In a way “First Cow” showcases a lot of the themes that “Parasite” succeeded in embracing but from the American perspective serving as both a critique and love letter of the American Dream and the struggles lower class citizens face to even start to dig themselves out of poverty. It’s not about these lower members of society being stepped on, but about the roadblocks put before them that are seemingly impossible to overcome without getting a leg up and how even the best of us need to take advantage of questionable strategies if we want to succeed.
The core story of “First Cow” sees Cookie and King-Lu not only bonding as men and friends but also searching for a way out of their directionless and stale lives. It’s a neat pairing because Cookie is an American who wants to open a bakery and serve other Americans to make them happy. King-Lu is an immigrant who has seen countless other societies, but he has trouble finding success in America where he has found beauty and acceptance in other regions. Only when the two come together and concoct a way to succeed by leaching off of a resource belonging to a well-off member of their society, one who is himself an immigrant who carried his wealth from a foreign country, that they find their way to the big time. Neither of them want to do it, but it’s the only way they see they can make it in the world. With this narrative Reichardt and original author Jonathan Raymond, who both wrote the screenplay, capture not only the nuances of the flaws hidden beneath the American Dream but also showcase a simple, stripped down story of brotherhood and bonding that puts the desperation of the lower class on full display. None of it feels preachy, none of it feels pretentious, and it all moves with a smooth, seamless pace that keeps you fully invested in the outcome and how these two flawed but humble human beings reach their inevitable destination. It’s storytelling at its best with simple ideas made complex by injecting a bit of sincere humanity complimented by some grade-A acting performances to give it that special touch.
Despite being based on previously written material, “First Cow” feels inspired and original using every bit of the nuance in its story, setting and atmosphere to perfection making it one of the greatest bits of storytelling that 2020 has provided so far. I feel like that statement would hold even if all of the blockbusters and big budget features were able to be released as planned. This is just a spectacularly crafted film that stands out in A24’s growing collection of masterpiece indie flicks that continue to prove there is indeed still “art” in the art of film. A wonderfully subtle but uncompromisingly critical showcase of the difficult path to success in America mixed with a wonderfully human narrative about two men bonding over life and ambitions, “First Cow” offers more than enough to be worthy of its early Oscar buzz. I honestly can’t wait to take a look at Kerry Reichardt’s other works now because of this is any indication of what I can expect I can see why she comes so highly recommended.