FIRST COW: Another slow-burn indie
* * * (out of four)
Several weeks ago, I reviewed a nifty little Amazon thriller called “Blow the Man Down,” calling it an “elliptical” movie -- one that requires careful attention and filling in the blanks, because it rarely spells things out.
The new straight-to-streaming indie “First Cow” has a similar feel -- except that it’s got a much simpler plot.
Directed, edited and co-written by Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Night Moves”), “First Cow” concerns an unlikely friendship between two men around the turn of the century in frontier Oregon: “Cookie” Figowitz is, as his name suggests, the cook on a small expedition headed to a nearby fort; one evening while foraging for much-needed food in the forest, Cookie stumbles upon King Lu, a Chinese immigrant who is on the run.
In the ensuing months, these two settle together in a ramshackle one-room cabin with dreams and hopes of a better life -- but precious little to work with. As the friends agree during a brief discussion, if you want to go into business, you need capital, or resources, or you can commit a crime.
When a wealthy Englishman who lives nearby imports the titular bovine into the territory (so he can have milk in his tea!), Cookie and King Lu make good on all three options, sneaking into his pasture at night and stealing milk. The resourceful chef then uses this to make fritters so delicious that in a camp full of workers with good pay but no good food, the two men quickly amass a pile of dough. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
While we’re on wordplay, it’s worth noting that “capital” and “cattle” are etymologically related by a cool linguistic phenomenon called a “doublet” (look it up!); in the days before currency, when basic words were still being coined, cows and cash were essentially the same thing. (This is also why one form of investment is called “stocks” -- as in “livestock.”)
In any case, “friends stealing milk” is just about all the plotting “First Cow” has; most viewers will find it slow -- though it has rave reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and a rare 89 (“universal acclaim”) at the even tougher Metacritic website.
Fortunately, “First Cow” is handily carried by its excellent performances -- chiefly John Magaro (“The Big Short,” “Orange Is the New Black”) as Cookie and Orion Lee as King Lu. These two leads are ably supplemented by a number of veteran supporting actors, including Toby Jones, Scott Shepherd and Ewen Bremner.
The film also features excellent production design (how ’bout those rickety, numberless playing cards -- and the clunky wild West checkerboard!) -- plus an effective period musical score mostly consisting of plucky, tuneful acoustic-guitar riffs.
As for that elliptical quality: The film functions in flashback, serving to explain (sort of) its mysterious opening scene -- but once it was over, I actually had to go back and re-watch the last 15 minutes to finally figure out what happened. Time and again, important plot points come and go with merely a gesture or a single line of dialog; so you really have to pay attention, which I apparently wasn’t.
Critics tired of hyperactive, big-budget action tend to favor this kind of subtle and respectful movie-making, which is why most of them liked “First Cow” more than I. Certainly a good film -- but hardly a great one.
I did love the cow, though.
directed by Kelly Reichardt
* * * (out of four)
121 min.; rated a mild PG-13 for brief strong language