BY DEAN MOSES
Each year the New York Film Festival plays host to a plethora of critically cerebrated movies that receive plenty of Oscar buzz. This year is no exception with pictures such as Motherless in Brooklyn and last issue’s review of The Irishman, which are both garnishing high praise from critics and audiences alike. But what about the other films at the festival, sure not all of them can be as expertly made as the aforementioned titles, yet there are plenty of hidden gems that fly under the radar while the bigger names attract all the attention with infamous actors and high production value. First Cow is one such film that deserves more appreciation and love.
First Cow is a tranquil film with a mood that fluctuates between hope and melancholy. Set during the early colonial days of the United States, a time that is typically depicted on screen with bloodthirsty angst and a cruel dog-eat-dog demeanor. Thankfully, we are shown something rather refreshing here. Our protagonist is Cookie Figowitz (played by John Magaro), a sweet, mild-mannered cook who works for a fur trapping company. While on a particularly harsh expedition Cookie is desperately searching for mushrooms to feed his crew when he comes across a naked man huddled in the bushes. This is King Lu (played by Orion Lee) who is hiding out from those who are calling for his death. Without any thought of reward, Cookie clothes King before smuggling him into the next town, where before long, they meet again. Wishing to return the favor, King invites Cookie to his modest home in the woods where they strike up a friendship. Here a plan is hatched to improve their lives. The first and only cow in the area is brought to the settlement in order to exclusively provide the governor with milk for tea, but, thanks to his culinary knowledge, Cookie knows that milk can be used for so much more than simply tea. So, the premise of First Cow kicks off: Two friends illegally sneak onto restricted land and milk a cow over a period of time in order to make money.
This may not sound like a riveting plot device. However, if given a chance, we are gently absorbed into the two men’s lives thanks to brilliant writing and dazzling yet reserved performances. Through the beautiful dialogue the men share their culture with one another, King divulges Chinese philosophy and in return Cookie provides food thanks to his cooking skills. There are heartwarming cultural acceptances made between these characters that many of us can learn from. On the surface the narrative is rather simplistic, although if we gaze a little deeper, we observe that the true story concerns these two tender souls just trying to make their way in a violent world. Cookie speaks to the cow as if it is a friend as he milks it and King doesn’t abandon Cookie in his time of need when the majority of other films would likely want to spice things up with a trendy betrayal scene. Over the course of the film they become our friends as well.
Again, this brings me back to that word: Tranquil. The soft talking, positive characters, and sweeping cinematography delivers audiences with a movie that does not concentrate on big action set pieces, blood, with a movie that does not concentrate on big action set pieces, blood, and gore, or ultra-famous actors. We are, instead, granted to a magical piece that both relaxes and engages the mind.
The New York Film Festival hosted a screening of First Cow followed by a press conference with director Kelly Reichardt and actors John Magaro and Orion Lee. The Spring Creek Sun attended the conference and even posed a question to the director.
Dean Moses (DM): Could you tell us a little bit about the coins and other trinkets in the film? Were they from the actual colonial period or did you recreate them for the film?
Kelly Reichardt (KR): The shells were the main source of commerce then. Commerce wasn’t really decided yet, so what has value is kind of up to you. In fact, people [back then] would have tattoos on their arm so that you could just measure the size of the shell [to determine the value]. There were also buttons [traded as commerce], and it was just all through things we read [in history books]. Trading was really undecided then. Everything was just what you needed. That was an early thing that fascinated Jon Raymond and myself when we were working on the script. The whole idea as to what has value [to a person].
Photos by Dean Moses