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FIRST COW BD + DVD + DGTL

Other // PG-13 // September 8, 2020
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted October 14, 2020 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

Just because a film depicts events that take place in Western times, doesn't automatically make it a western. Because of the presupposed confines of the genre, there's a kneejerk need to label stories that take place during 19th century American frontier as westerns, with a footnote on work that that doesn't fit neatly into western expectations. That's how we get descriptions of great character studies like McCabe & Mrs Miller as "subversive westerns", when Robert Altman's primary mission was to explore how people with different backgrounds and strength flourish or perish in a hostile environment with limited resources and an unforgiving nature.

Co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt's gritty and solemn First Cow also takes place in the 19th century frontier "The Oregon wilderness, one of the most ruthless of all-, but it's hard to even call it a subversive western. It's a touching exploration of the bond between two lost men who seek guidance and support to find meaning in their lives. It could have taken place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and would have explored its themes just as instinctively. The mud-filled and intentionally unattractive western backdrop serves as an apt backdrop for some of the most natural acting and insightful writing I've seen in an American indie this year.

Cookie (John Magaro) is a mild-mannered fur trapper who takes bullying behavior from crass hunters. He has a secret dream: to become a baker and open up a bakery in a big city. Yet the expression of such desires in the tough-as-nails wilderness, where the only hint at civilization is a bunch of ruddy tents and shacks, can be a death sentence. That is, until the smooth-talking and suave Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) enters Cookie's life, and comes up with a plan to sell Cookie's cookies "I'm aware of the lame word association, blame Reichardt for this- to frontiersmen who would pay top dollar for such sweets.

The duo scrapes most of the ingredients, but they can't find milk. The only cow that's available in the region belongs to a rich Englishman named Factor (Toby Jones), so Cookie and King-Lu come up with a plan to incrementally steal the cow's milk at night. The fact that First Cow is basically an introverted heist film where the mark is a common household ingredient in present times, yet still carries profound narrative stakes for the protagonists, not only underlines the scarcity that the characters have to suffer under, but most importantly gives the material further thematic layers.

Of course as Factor becomes suspicious of the cow's lack of milk, Cookie and King-Lu realize that they might have to skip town. But it might be too late when they come to this realization. There's danger in every corner of this world, but Reichardt doesn't milk it, for lack of a better word, in order to extract manufactured tension out of the plot. His focus is always on the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, aided heavily by the profound chemistry between Magaro and Lee.

The Blu-ray

Video:

It's ironic that once audiences adjusted to 16:9 TV screens, there has been a resurgence in the classic 4:3 aspect ratio in cinema. Reichardt uses this academy ratio in order to give us the opposite of a widescreen panorama of wide-open spaces. The grayscale color palette and the framing emphasizes how boxed in and trapped these characters are in their limited world. The 1080p transfer carries the muted colors in a surprisingly vibrant way, and the healthy amount of grain supports the old and weary look of the film.

Audio:

As a subtle character study, don't expect much surround presence from the DTS-HD 5.1 track. However, the surround experience is also essential in fully experiencing the isolation that Reichardt envisions. The ambient sound design does a great job of making the locations feel real and period appropriate, especially during quiet scenes without any dialogue or action.

Extras:

A Place in this World: This is an engaging half-hour featurette full of set footage and candid interviews with the cast and crew. It manages to encapsulate various segments of the production within such a short runtime.

Final Thoughts:

I certainly won't hide the obvious observation that First Cow essentially provides a one-hour narrative within a two-hour runtime. The slow pacing's attempt isn't to engross you in the plot machinations, but to place the audience in the middle of this world, while letting them experience its reality, many of which is alien to our modern world. I have had issues with Reichardts's pacing in the past "Old Joy is essentially a ten minute short stretched out to a feature-, but in this case I was so engrossed with the characters and the world that they inhabit, the intimacy that's created through the patience Reichardt exhibits enveloped me.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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