I have virtually no experience writing about movies. The most I’ve ever felt like a film writer is when I attended a film festival and hurriedly composed a 300-word review of a Dutch documentary for an undergrad class. I finished it in roughly 30 minutes, rushing through it so I could go catch Soccer Mommy’s set at a Missourian breakfast restaurant by myself. I love watching movies, but when it comes to writing about them, I’m a pure neophyte in every sense of the word.
So you may be asking yourself: “Why is Grant dedicating his first true blog post to a piece of film writing?” That’s because the true function of this blog/newsletter is to allow me to write whatever I want whenever I feel like it. That being said, I finished watching Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow approximately five minutes ago. To be more specific, the credits just finished rolling and William Tyler’s acoustic-guitar-led composition has now faded out.
Side note: I also just realized this is probably one of the few A24 movies without an ambient soundtrack. Welcome to the new paradigm.
These are going to be tremendously rough, potentially erroneous first impressions, as I was forced to watch this movie with no subtitles, and I invariably watch movies with subtitles because I have difficulties following a narrative without them. Aside from macro-scale plot points, I also miss out on subtleties in the dialogue. There were many moments when I was leaning into my laptop attempting to decipher faint whispers or translate viscously thick Irish (?) accents.
Not only were my subtitles dysfunctional, but there’s also a lot of darkness in First Cow. I’m not referring to darkness from a thematic perspective (i.e. death, sorrow, Waluigi’s derivative mirror-existence), but lighting. A sizable chunk of my viewing of the film was spent leaning toward my laptop screen, not just to understand dialogue, but to see what was even going on. In most cases, my screen appeared completely black, and I was merely staring at my dumbfounded reflection, clueless as to what I was watching. My brightness was still set nearly at the maximum level, and it’s a miracle that I didn’t have to charge my laptop once.
Despite these barriers, I still immensely enjoyed First Cow. This was my first time watching a Reichardt film, and her loose adaptation of Jon Raymond’s novel The Half Life is poignantly layered. It centers on the budding friendship between two protagonists, Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), and their enterprise of surreptitiously milking a rich dude’s cow in nocturnal hours. This cow is the only one in the area, hence its title, and Cookie and Lu devise a plan to use this bovine’s milk to make what they unappetizingly call “oily cakes.”
These cakes of the oily variety are a mega-hit in the frontier, and when one patron asks what’s in them, Lu calls it an “ancient Chinese secret.” At first glance, First Cow seems like a simple glimpse into the rural life of its 19th-century, Pacific-Northwest setting. Ultimately, however, this is a class critique. The wealth divide between Cookie/Lu and Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the cow’s owner, is starkly drawn. When Factor and his also-rich companion, Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) discuss the latest fashion trends in Paris as Cookie and Lu trail behind them, it crystallizes the frivolous interests of the capitalist class and the survivalist hustle of the working class.
Lu tells Cookie in confidence later that evening that their world could not be more different from that of Factor’s and Lloyd’s. They’re trying to survive while Factor and people like him are more concerned with what colors are popular on clothing overseas. But that’s not to say that First Cow is exclusively about class. It’s also about (cue the excess of Kingdom Hearts references) friendship.
Since the moment Cookie and Lu first meet early in the movie’s story, it’s clear that a bond is established. They encounter each other later in a bar after it completely empties out due to a fight outside its doors. Lu invites Cookie over to his place for a drink, and Cookie eventually proposes the oily-cake endeavor, through which the two become inextricably linked. I’m not going to spoil anything major, but this motif is pursued throughout First Cow’s entirety, and it’s distinctly cemented in one of the opening shots.
All things considered, this is undoubtedly among my favorite films of 2020 thus far, alongside Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Shirley, Mucho Mucho Amor, Da 5 Bloods, and Trolls World Tour (I haven’t seen it yet, but I already know it’s a cinematic masterpiece Martin Scorsese only wishes he could make). First Cow is a wonderful viewing that I imagine will reveal its depth with each watch. I’m already looking forward to watching this again. Let’s hope my subtitles work next time.