Rave reviews are rolling in for the new western from “Meek’s Cutoff” director Kelly Reichardt.
On the first weekend of its theatrical rollout, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is milking praise from leading movie reviewers.
Joe Morgenstern, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Wall Street Journal, was smitten during the opening minutes of Reichart’s period drama: “Some movies feel dead from the first shot, with or without star power, spectacular vistas or the false energy of hurtling pace. First Cow is vividly alive on arrival and grows into pure enchantment, although it starts at a saunter and its physical scale is small.” Jake Coyle of The Associated Press agreed: “The joys of First Cow are many. The thoughtful, unshowy textures of its clothes and surroundings. The fabulous chemistry of its two leads. The softly stirring guitar of William Tyler’s score. All of these details add up to a wholly original western, one with its own rhythms, ideas and iconography.”
Among the other critics offering full-throated raves:
A.O. Scott, The New York Times: “Behind every great fortune, someone once said — not quite Balzac, though he often gets the credit — lies a great crime. The fortune amassed by Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), partners in a mid-19th-century artisanal snack-food start-up in a rough section of the Oregon Territory, is a modest one: a cloth sack filled with shells, cutup coins and company scrip. The crime that brings them that bounty is correspondingly small-scale. Under cover of night, the two men sneak over to a pasture near the cabin they share and milk someone else’s cow. (King-Lu takes lookout duty in a tree, while Cookie fills the pail.)
“That patient, inscrutable animal is the title character, and in effect the female lead, of First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s deceptively simple and wondrously subtle new film. A parable of economics and politics, with shrewd insights into the workings of supply and demand, scarcity and scale and other puzzles of the marketplace, the movie is also keenly attuned to details of history, both human and natural… And like many great westerns it critiques some of the genre’s foundational myths with bracing, beautiful rigor, including the myth of heroic individualism.”
Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times: “Aside from noting that you should probably not see First Cow on an empty stomach (or without plans to hit up a bakery afterward), I won’t say too much about the clever scheme in which Cookie and King-Lu slyly enlist the animal’s services. Suffice to say the plot’s every unfolding development is a deft and delightful surprise, and it may be the most suspenseful and entertaining demonstration yet of Reichardt’s rigorous attention to detail — her patient, genuine and remarkably cinematic fascination with the workings of process and minutiae. All of which makes First Cow both a captivating underdog story and a brilliant demonstration of the pluck and ingenuity of American enterprise in action.”
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service: “Reichardt and [co-screenwriter Jonathan] Raymond’s tale is a subtle, yet biting exploration of early markets, primitive systems of capital that crop up in wild places like the Western frontier, where scarcity makes things all the more precious, and money takes many forms. Cookie and King Lu fry up a few oily cakes and sell them for bills, coins and shells, creating a demand for their sweet treats baked with purloined dairy. Scarcity is what makes their endeavor lucrative, and dangerous.
“What Reichardt and Raymond present is a story about the power of money in a world where money hardly seems useful. The power it accumulates is like a runaway train, snowballing and steamrolling the delicate webs of connection that humans so tentatively spin. But with a gentle hero like Cookie at its center, with his sweet, sad eyes and deep well of empathy, friendship proves it can prevail in the quietly moving and masterful First Cow.”
By the way: As many C&I readers know well, First Cow is not Reichardt’s first rodeo. Back in 2010, the widely respected indie filmmaker took us on a harrowing journey through the 19th-century Oregon frontier with Meek’s Cutoff. She returns to the Oregon Territory in her latest film — but focuses on life there at an earlier time, a period described in the script as when “history hasn’t gotten here yet.” And that, she says, placed unique demands on herself and her crew.
“Meek’s Cutoff was 1845,” Reichardt says, “so we had photographic images to work with. With Meek’s, every time we set up a camera, it was like making a decision to either counter or support an existing trope. That’s just the nature of the western genre, and how strong the visual language is. With First Cow, since it’s 1820, no photos exist — only a small number of etchings by early explorers in the region. The research was more geared towards interpreting what’s written about the time, or passed down in stories. [Costume designer] April Napier would figure out what people would have had on their backs as they left home and what they would have had access to along the way. We had categories for how people would have arrived and what their jobs would have been, if they were working at the fort or just passing through.
“We ended up working with a researcher named Phil Clark in London, because the people keeping records of the area and making notes and sketches were coming from England. April’s research led to Nan MacDonald and a group of women in Powers, Oregon, who made all of the cedar capes and hats that are in the film. Tony [Gasparro] and the art department were doing their own research. Jon Raymond was making trips down to the Chachalu Museum, the interpretive museum of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde—a really wonderful museum near the coast that just opened a year or so ago. Everyone was gathering information in a variety of ways.”
Reichardt made especially diligent efforts to offer an accurate and inclusive depiction of Native Americans in the Oregon Territory.
“The story we were telling was an immigrant story, about a cook and a sailor in an unfamiliar land,” Reichardt says. “That said, we were making a movie set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s, and we wanted to make sure the people who lived in that time and place were properly represented. They’re also a really underrepresented group in film, and so the responsibility became even stronger.
“We were really lucky that we encountered some incredibly generous people at the Chachalu Museum and in the language program at the Grand Ronde who could educate us about their families and their history. They helped us with translations and introduced us to really useful books and films in their archives.
“A beautiful thing happened one night when we were recording wild lines with James Lee Jones and Orion for the scene where King-Lu bargains with a man for a ride down river. They are speaking in the jargon called Chinuk Wawa—a global trade language rooted in Chinook.
“A small group of us were in a parked van with the interpreter, trying to get the pronunciation right, and I’m realizing how many people on the crew—the boom operator, the sound recordist, the script supervisor—were picking up on the language and its sounds and could join in on the conversation of what certain words meant or sounded like. All the actors speaking the jargon took their own approach to it.
“Hopefully,” Reichardt adds, “we are somewhere in the ballpark with it all.”
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