This year has been an intense one so far. With nearly every week introducing a new catastrophe, people yearn for a light-hearted film to take their minds off these events. Luckily, director Kelly Reichardt has given us just that in her 2019 film “First Cow,” released in the U.S. on March 6 of this year.
From the same director who portrayed the touching bond between woman and dog in “Wendy and Lucy,” “First Cow” is a Western film that chronicles the story of baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). It follows the friendship that ensues between the two men as they steal milk from a cow owned by Chief Factor (Toby Jones) to make and sell “oily cakes,”a pastry similar to a doughnut.
The powerful acting from these three main actors, and all others, is one of the many standout features from this film. Throughout the film, Magaro portrays such a wholesome and empathetic character whose compassion knows no bounds. Cookie’s kindness is immediately introduced as he provides clothes and shelter to King-Lu when they first meet. However, Cookie’s generosity isn’t reserved for just humans as he shows concern for various animals, from talking to the title cow, Eve, in a caring tone while milking her to flipping a salamander on its legs after he finds it on its back.
Margaro is a highlight in this film and pairs nicely with Lee, who provides another exceptional performance. Lee portrays King-Lu, a man in need of a friend and with aspirations of success that can resonate with audiences. Not only is every scene with Lee proof of his dedication to his role, especially visible in the emotional final scene of the movie, but Lee’s presence also highlights the lack of proper Asian representation in previous Western films. Too often, when a person of Asian descent is cast, they are forced into a previously built stereotype, such as being a martial arts expert like in the 1974 film “The Stranger and the Gunfighter.” King-Lu does not fall into this similar rut; he’s an original, fleshed-out character who sells oily cakes with Cookie. It’s refreshing to have a well-written character of Asian descent in an American Western film that doesn’t rely on stereotypes to set him apart from other characters.
Another way “First Cow” builds on the classic Western genre is with its change in setting. Oftentimes, Western fims take place in deserts spanning massive land, which opens the opportunity for action. In the desert, protagonists of these classic films find themselves stereotypically facing attacks from outlaws or wild animals. However, that is not the case in “First Cow,” which is set in a forested area of Oregon. This change in scenery shifts the action-packed theme of previous Westerns into one that explores the isolation in being a frontiersman. This setting replacement allows viewers to feel the seclusion of the two main characters as they come to terms with their forested loneliness.
This isolation is elevated even further by the lack of dialogue and non-diegetic music. Throughout most of the film, there is a silence present between character interactions that defines the emotions of our characters and enhances the importance of each word spoken. While the lack of a score is difficult during some portions of the film, in others, it amplifies the importance of nature through sound design. The rush of the river, the crunch of leaves, the sizzle of a skillet and many more sounds are emphasized in this choice to have a limited score, allowing the audience to feel as if they are physically with Cookie and King-Lu.
While “First Cow” is slow at times with its use of silence, it’s still an exceptional film. With heartwarming performances from our two leads, amazing sound design and a beautiful setting, the movie acts as a much-needed shift in the Western genre and an uplifting distraction from today’s crisis.