NYFF REVIEW: “A reason to cry over spilled milk” – First Cow (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Their world feels real, making room for the friendship to feel real too.”

In order to survive in a world ruled by colonialist American dreamer greed, is there any room for genuine kindness and friendship? Is scamming the only way to scrape by if you were not born directly into the top ranks?

In 1820s Oregon, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a soft-spoken cook, has been hired by fur trappers as they make their way through the frontier. The trappers, hungry and exhausted, are indifferent toward him at best, abusive at worst. Cookie is a wanderer without a home or a family to speak of; that is, until he finds fellow wanderer King Lu (Orion Lee) on the run one night in the woods and offers him a place to sleep for the night, no questions asked. Cookie parts ways with the trappers, and the two men embark together on a risky but lucrative financial baking project that involves stealing milk from a cow belonging to a rich, more “civilized” British landowner (Toby Jones). Of course, this is no ordinary cow. You guessed it, it’s the first cow ever introduced to the region, making it very valuable to all parties involved. For them, there is a reason to cry over spilled milk. Cookie uses the stolen milk to bake “oily cakes,” which King, the sales half of the duo, makes instantly popular.

The bond between Cookie and King is what makes the film so special. They passively share their dreams; King wants to start a farm, Cookie a bakery or a hotel. Although they both technically depend on each other in order to make money, they are never solely in it for that reason. Cookie and King are outsiders who understand each other and just want to make a living without doing the degrading, low paying, often dangerous work that the people at the top rely on in order to make their fortunes, an idea that viewers today can still identify with.

Survival through friendship in a merciless environment is not an unfamiliar theme to Kelly Reichardt devotees, but it feels refreshing with each new film she makes because of the masterful intention behind the characters in terms of performance, writing, and direction. Although the actors did not get a lot of rehearsal time, they participated in a sort of “boot camp” before filming, where they learned 1820s survival tactics such as lighting fires without matches. Lee also learned the language used by Native Americans in Oregon at that time for some scenes. This careful attention to detail behind every word the characters said, every tool they used, and every piece of clothing on their bodies pays off. Character choices that may seem subtle become deeply critical to the narrative, such as Cookie’s bond with the cow or King’s inability to chop wood. Their world feels real, making room for the friendship to feel real too.

Chris Blauvelt’s stunning cinematography also serves the purpose of making Cookie and King’s friendship a reality. The 4:3 aspect ratio, which Reichardt described as a “humble, intimate frame” makes the trees appear taller, the men closer together, the close ups much more profound. When asked what the motivation was behind this decision, Reichardt responded “Because I prefer it…I’m not sure when we collectively decided on the rectangle.”

Reichardt’s critics often characterize her films’ pacing as being too slow, and this film will not be exempt from that narrative. She holds longer on the quiet, mundane moments of life that a different director might cut for the sake of engaging the audience or moving the story along more quickly. I honestly don’t know how anyone could describe the film as slow when there are so many udderly suspenseful and funny moments, sometimes at the same time. Cookie, with his soft voice, kind heart, and connection to nature, is one of my favorite protagonists to date; how viewers can watch this film and not fiercely care about what happens to him and King, I could never understand.

Everyone can relate to the visceral human need to have a home, to be seen and understood; this need that separates us from animals.

Based on the novel “The Half Life” by Jonathan Raymond

Dir: Kelly Reichardt

Prod: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, René Auberjonois

Release Date: 2019

Available at: US Cinemas (March 6th 2020)