July 20, 2020

CINEMA | Frontier Capitalism – Kelly Reichardt Milks 'First Cow'

"Some people can't imagine being stolen from."
John Magaro Kelly Reichardt | First Cow | A24
A24 Films
Indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt returns to her beloved Oregon in her latest feature, a slow western about two travellers during the nineteenth-century Old West. Based on the book The Half-Life written by author and regular collaborator Jon Raymond (who co-wrote the script with Reichardt), First Cow tenderly eases into its story of food and friendship wrapped in frontier capitalism.

Starring John Magaro and Orion Lee as drifters Cookie and King-Lu, we follow their simple lives roaming through the gold rush-era Oregon Territory. When the region gets its titular first cow (her name is Eve) owned by a wealthy British colonist (Toby Jones), the pair hatch a plan to steal its milk in a low-level baking and commerce scheme. Magaro is soulful just as Lee is dynamic. Their heartwarming relationship makes for a slyly unassuming buddy picture.

Employing the boxy 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames First Cow through a nostalgic sense of historical reverence to set its scenic landscape. The tone poem of a film has a lived-in texture to it beyond its 1820s time period that makes the world feel particularly well-realized. How the film tells such a simple tale of American frontiersman is deceptively charming.

Reichardt continues to cement herself as a quietly great American filmmaker concerned with expressing character and story through mood and setting. First Cow simply follows without ever needing to prove anything beyond what's seen on screen. Its period detail in capturing the Pacific Northwest of old is rather spellbinding.

First Cow screens virtually as part of the Vancouver International Film Centre's year-round programming through their VIFF at Home online portal and is available to stream on iTunes. It also screens at both the Rio Theatre currently and The Cinematheque starting August 13th.


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