Category Archives: Independent Western

First Cow-2020

First Cow-2020

Director-Kelly Reichardt

Starring-John Magaro, Orion Lee

Scott’s Review # 1,180

Reviewed September 22, 2021

Grade: A

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

Bone Tomahawk-2015

Bone Tomahawk-2015

Director-S. Craig Zahler

Starring-Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson

Scott’s Review #403


Reviewed May 10, 2016

Grade: B+

Bone Tomahawk, unfortunately, a film from 2015 that almost nobody saw or heard of, is a unique independent horror/western hybrid, that has strong influences of Quentin Tarantino, and contains an impressive cast for such a low profile film.

Bone Tomahawk is the proverbial diamond in the rough and is worth seeing for film fans with patience enough to sit through the slow-moving pace to get to the good stuff, which largely comes in the final thirty minutes of the film.

Notably, the film was recognized by the Independent film committee and received two spirit awards, for Best Supporting Male (Richard Jenkins), and Best Screenplay- it won neither.

The film does not have a “star”, but rather a myriad of heavy hitters in a clear ensemble. Kurt Russell plays Franklin Hunt, sheriff of a tiny town named Bright Hope, presumably somewhere in the west (Wyoming?) circa 1890. His deputy sheriff, Chicory,  is played by Jenkins.

When drifters kill some travelers, they accidentally stumble upon a mysterious Native American burial ground and taint its contents, leaving one brutally murdered by the tribe.

The other (played by David Arquette) stumbles into Bright Hope and is immediately deemed suspicious. When he, a female Doctor’s assistant, and a young local man disappear, it is realized that they have been abducted by the owners of the burial ground, who are feared to be cannibalistic savages.

Hunt, Chicory, a foreman named Arthur (the doctor’s assistant’s wife), played by Patrick Wilson, along with a local playboy played by Matthew Fox, decide to trek long terrain to find and rescue the missing.

The pacing of the film is extremely slow and this will undoubtedly turn off some folks seeking slicker, high-tech viewing, or even some CGI, but the payoff for patience is immense.

To be fair, the group’s trek through the desert in pursuit of the accosted seems endless, and I did have thoughts of what the point was, but the forthcoming turn of events makes this tedium worth it.

In defense of the long plodding journey, this aspect does make the audience get to know and begin to care about the characters- some make it out alive, others are not as lucky. The fun part is finding out who does and doesn’t.

Bone Tomahawk contains one of the most gruesome scenes that I have ever witnessed in my thousands of viewed films. A male character, nude, is brutally scalped and a spear is hammered into his throat in full view of the prisoners.

As if this is not shocking enough, he is then turned upside down, split down the middle, and chopped in half, as his insides spill to the ground. The snapping sounds of his bones and the visual horror of the guts are even tough for the non-squeamish to view.

It is uncanny that Kurt Russell plays a very similar character in another 2015 film- the much higher profile, The Hateful Eight. Sure, in the latter he is a bounty hunter, but the period, setting, and costumes are almost identical. One might wonder which was made first.

Bone Tomahawk is a guys movie, but not in the traditional sense- there are no explosions, no unnecessary machismo, or apparent clichés.

But at the end of the day, it is a western- the cast is mainly male- besides the Doctor’s assistant, the only other females are wives with small roles.

The most glaring is Sean Young- given hardly anything to do in what amounted to a cameo appearance. Otherwise, the Native American females- blind, deaf, pregnant, and missing appendages are the only other females in sight.

A unique hybrid of film genres, Bone Tomahawk is a clever, different experience. I am a champion of independent film and this film is a good example of why I am. Evidently, with a stellar cast of A-list or former A-list stars banding together to make a piece of art, it seems others champion good film too.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Male-Richard Jenkins, Best Screenplay

Brokeback Mountain-2005

Brokeback Mountain-2005

Director Ang Lee

Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal

Top 100 Films #46

Scott’s Review #338


Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Brokeback Mountain (2005) is a revolutionary film and one of the most important films to be released during the 2000s. Never before had an LGBT film been given as much exposure and widespread viewership as this film did.

Robbed of the 2005 Best Picture Academy Award (the great, but not as great, Crash won), Brokeback Mountain received other tremendous accolades and word-of-mouth buzz that helped it achieve great success.

A treasure that must always be remembered and appreciated.

Perfectly cast, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play two cowboys who fall madly in love with each other. The period of the film runs from 1963 until the early 1980s. Through the years we see their unbreakable bond tested by outside factors- namely being gay is forbidden at this time and location- Wyoming and Texas.

Jack Swift (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) meet one summer in 1963 when they are both hired by grizzled Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep one summer on Brokeback Mountain in remote Wyoming.

They immediately form a friendship that turns physical one drunken night. From this point, the men are inseparable and share a passion insurmountable.

Due to the times, there is no possible way they can openly share life, so they arrange for periodic “fishing trips”, away from their wives and children so that they can spend time together in secret.

The chemistry is evident between Ledger and Gyllenhaal, which is extremely important to the success of the film.

The audience needs to truly buy their bond and director Ang Lee is successful at eliciting wonderful performances from each actor. This is especially crucial during the first forty-five minutes of the film as all the scenes are only the two actors together.

The famous “tent” scene, in which Jack’s and Ennis’s passion first erupts is perfectly choreographed- it is as much animalistic as it is passionate and this sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Eventually, other characters are introduced and Ennis and Jack live lives largely separate from each other. Michelle Williams plays Alma, a kind-hearted country girl, married to Ennis. She accidentally stumbles on Jack and Ennis’s secret and keeps this hidden throughout the years.

Williams is fantastic in the role- sweet, yet saddled with the pain of knowing her husband is in love with another man causes her to mistrust and eventually destroys their marriage.

Jack forges a life in Texas and marries well-to-do Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but the marriage is a sham, Lureen’s father hates Jack, and Jack cannot forget Ennis. Jack is the aggressor, the one more confident with his sexuality, and one would surmise, would be the one more likely to be “out” if circumstances were different.

He looks for other men, even going to Mexico to find some companionship.

The ending of the film is tragic and heartbreaking and we witness Ennis being a good father to his now grown-up kids. A wonderful scene is written between Ledger and Kate Mara, who plays his daughter. She asks the lonely Ennis to attend her wedding and the scene is sweet and tender.

Another scene involving Ennis meeting Jack’s parents is monumental- as important as what is said in this wonderful scene is what is left unsaid.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) is an honest, graceful, and brave film, that thanks to the talents and direction of Ang Lee, was able to be made.

The exceptional cast led by Ledger and Gyllenhaal is dynamic and enables the film to come together as one masterpiece, that will surely never be forgotten.

Oscar Nominations: 3 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Ang Lee (won), Best Actor-Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor-Jake Gyllenhaal, Best Supporting Actress-Michelle Williams, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Cinematography

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 2 wins-Best Feature (won), Best Director-Ang Lee (won), Best Male Lead-Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Female-Michelle Williams