Starring-John Magaro, Orion Lee
Scott’s Review # 1,180
Reviewed September 22, 2021
Despite the slow-moving pace First Cow (2020) is a tremendous effort by director Kelly Reichardt in which she also co-writes along with her usual writing partner, Jonathan Raymond.
To merely say the film is slow-moving is criminal. I mean it is slow-moving, so much so that I confess to guiltily sneaking a few peeks at my phone and I try to never do that. But the time invested results in a moving and engaging experience with patience.
Brimming with geographical authenticity (most of Reichardt’s films and Raymond’s novels are set in the Pacific Northwest, USA) the outdoors and forest scenes are aplenty.
First Cow is also a feast for the foodie in all of us as rich and creamy aspects of cooking, baking, and tasting, are all featured in a delicious form. More about that later.
But the real victory is the chemistry between the two male leads, John Magaro and Orion Lee. The unlikely friends and subsequent business partners provide a rich exterior brimming with sub texture and questions about their sexuality.
Sadly, the film doesn’t go there at all and I’m not sure why, but my mind certainly did. I kept waiting for an answer to whether their union was strictly platonic or otherwise but alas my curiosity was never even remotely satisfied.
Despite this miss (in my opinion anyway), First Cow is a wonderful film rich in human emotion that provides a tale of kindness and connection that lasts until the conclusion. As is the trend in cinema these days, the beginning reveals the ending.
The year is 1820. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (Magaro) is a lonely cook who has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in the Oregon Territory. He aspires to find his fortune in San Francisco, California. The trappers do not treat him particularly well.
One night he meets and saves the life of a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Lee) also seeking his fortune in California. They become fast friends and soon begin to collaborate on a successful business, although its longevity is dependent upon the participation of a wealthy British landowner’s prized milking cow unbeknownst to the landowner.
As the duo forge a successful and tasty local business their biscuits nearly have the local townspeople eating from Cookie’s and Lu’s hands. A blueberry French clafoutis takes center stage during one scene and deserves description. It is a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream.
Yum! I could almost taste it from the screen.
I hate to shatter the otherwise innocent texture of the film and the sweet image of two adult men having an inseparable connection but I simply cannot help myself! As the men lie in a tent together and glance over at each other they nearly have a Brokeback Mountain (2005) moment.
I half-expected Lu to flip Cookie over and ravage his body but this was not to be. Instead, the touching, tender, original, entrancing, and quiet relationship is never defined as anything other than two buddies with sincerity and mystique.
But, maybe that’s the point?
I adore that Reinhardt and Raymond do not pepper their characters with any false machismo or fake guy behavior to ensure the audience knows they are straight right away. Instead, both men are sensitive, thoughtful, and intellectual. How refreshing with masculine male characters.
Questions about the extent of their relationship continued to gnaw at me especially during the final scene when they lie down next to each other in the grass. And never was a mention of a woman ever muttered.
Otherwise, the gorgeous (4×3) cinematography is evident throughout the film as the men spend much of their time by the campfire or plowing their way through forest brush. Tremendous, peaceful scenes are non-stop. I was shocked that the film didn’t achieve an Oscar nomination in this category.
First Cow (2020) was met with tremendous support and accolades which will hopefully encourage those who are fans of thinking man’s films to see it. It sure made me see it.
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Kelly Reinhardt, Best Supporting Male-Orion Lee