Another scene from First Cow

First Cow REVIEW

April 29, 2021
2 mins read
First Cow REVIEW


First Cow REVIEW

Award-winning film declared dull and cliched by Witchdoctor’s esteemed reviewer, PAUL ROSE.

Director : Kelly Reichardt
Cast : John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd and Gary Farmer
Running time : 121 minutes
John Magaro in First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow – which won Best Film at the 2020 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and was named as one of the 10 best films of 2020 by the National Board of Review – has, at last, landed on our shores.

Based on the novel The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, First Cow is
set in Oregon on the Pacific Northwest. The film opens with a totally unnecessary preamble which annoyed the hell out of me. In modern times a girl and her dog dig up some 19 Century artefacts in the form of two human skeletons. What happens then stretches credulity: the dog stops digging when and the human continues to dig when any sensible person would stop after unearthing a human skull.


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Cut to 1800s Oregon and we are introduced to a band of fur trappers and their hapless cook, Cookie (John Magaro) who has to forage each day to find food to cook. On one of these expeditions, he happens upon a naked Chinaman hiding in the woods. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is on the run from a band of Russians, having killed one of them. Cookie invites them back to camp, where he feeds and clothes him and hides him overnight in his tent.
An idyllic scene from First Cow

At a later date, these two meet up again in a bar in a newly established settlement. King-Lu invites Cookie to his shack to drink whiskey and an instant friendship is formed. Both men have been independent and nomadic since childhood and have many things in common. Cookie accepts Kim-Lu’s invitation to move in and the bromance begins.

Like all frontiersmen, these two are hell-bent on making their fortunes and after dismissing many options decide on selling baked goods, which Cookie makes, to the gold rush pioneers in the township.
One of Cookie’s specialities is oily cakes, which require fresh milk to be at their best. Fortunately, the Town Official (Toby Jones) has the only cow in the territory and in order to maximize their profits Cookie and King-Lu go on nightly raids to steal a bucket of milk.
Another scene from First Cow

One day the Town Official comes across the two selling their wares and upon sampling one of the “delicious” oily cakes commissions them to bake for him. Not surprisingly, the brothers-in-cake are eventually busted milking the cow and the manhunt begins.

First Cow won’t be everyone’s idea of a night out. It is slower than a wet week in lockdown and at 121 minutes it feels like a wet week in lockdown.
There are no female characters in this film, and the town appears to be the only frontier town in history without a brothel, which begs the question: are our two protagonists more than just close friends? I would have liked to know. Their bromance, which anchors the film’s plot, is too cliched, too black and white.
For some bizarre reason, First Cow was shot in a nearly square-shaped 4-3 aspect ratio, which takes some getting used to. At first, I thought the projectionist had made a mistake and I’m sure this has led to complaints to cinema managers the world over. That aside, First Cow is beautifully filmed in 35mm, but is, in the end, cliched and dull.
* First Cow opens in NZ cinemas on Thursday, 21 April.
Avatar photo

Paul reviews films. His illustrious history includes many years in the music industry as a label owner, venue booker, publicist, band and record store manager, including a three-year stint at the helm of Real Groovy. More recently, he managed the Rialto cinema in Auckland and co-ordinated the NZIFF’s programme of short films. He writes for magazines and website, too!

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