Nestled comfortably in the enchanting forests of Oregon that so many of us have come to know and love, director Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow" is a bit like a leisurely hike through the Beaver state's natural splendor. Despite the visual perks of filming in the Northwest, however, the film gets lost in the narrative woods and struggles with a slow pace throughout.
"First Cow" follows a reserved man with a passion for cooking as he navigates the hard life of a pioneer in the early 19th century. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is traveling through the Oregon country when he joins a group of fur trappers and while he is struggling to make a living he reunites with a downtrodden man he met along the way – a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee).
Figowitz and Lu's friendship is the heart of the film and their bond is strengthened by a business idea they hatch. The first cow to arrive in the territory is being kept at the property of wealthy entrepreneur Chief Factor (Toby Jones) and the pair decide to steal some of its milk in the night to use for baked goods, which they sell on the street for a handsome profit.
As the business begins to take off, the film begins to pick up the pace and raise the stakes for Figowitz and Lu. Still, extended scenes of characters performing mundane tasks feel excessive, even if they are likely intended to show us who the characters are rather than tell us through dialogue.
The 121-minute runtime feels longer because of these creative choices and it is a detriment to the story in spots.
Reichardt's skill as a director is on full display throughout the film, despite its lack of pace. Beyond the decision to unspool her characters' yarns in a slow, methodical way, she makes the wide expanse of untapped wilderness feel small and cozy. The characters are subtle and relatable and there are broad stroke critiques of capitalism weaved into the story.
But this isn't an anti-capitalist movie as much as it is one about friendship, companionship and the seeds of the American dream. That two men from two vastly different corners of the world can meet each other under suspicious circumstances and become dear friends is a testament to the human spirit. Their pursuit of vast riches is only part of what makes their friendship so resonant.
"First Cow" is yet another solid output of independent cinema from distributor A24. While its slow pace holds back a story that had potential to be gripping or even tear-jerking, it is still an enjoyable movie to sit back and relax during – especially for those of us who have experienced Oregon's forests firsthand. The sheer beauty of the nature surrounding the characters is enough to keep the attention of Northwest audiences, but general moviegoers may well be turned off by this sleepy portrayal of life in the uncertain times of Manifest Destiny.
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