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Orion Lee and John Magaro in First Cow.

Courtesy of TIFF

  • First Cow
  • Directed by Kelly Reichardt
  • Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond
  • Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee and the Titular Cow
  • Classification PG; 121 minutes

rating

3.5 out of 4 stars

Discounting whatever the John Krasinski/Emily Blunt household is up to these days, quiet is an underrated aspect of cinema. As audiences, we lean toward demanding a near-constant auditory assault – that if we’re not hearing something, we’re missing something. Director Kelly Reichardt has no qualms with upending this and other pieces of conventional cinematic wisdom with First Cow, a film that takes great care to remind us of the whisper-quiet bones of America’s history – a time when there wasn’t much to hear except what nature was telling us.

Reichardt’s attention to the power of quiet – not total silence, but the hushed hum of the natural world – can be felt from her new film’s second scene (we’ll get to the pivotal first scene soon), in which a nomadic chef named Cookie (John Magaro) delicately traipses through the woods of 19th-century Oregon. Cookie is in the employ of a group of brusque, frequently drunken beaver-fur catchers, and isn’t doing too well with the goods and provisions provided. So he seeks whatever nature provides – foraging a few mushrooms, gathering some nuts. But in his mission, he’s careful to leave little trace of his presence, with his hushed footsteps subtly but immediately cluing us to the fact that he’s a sensitive soul, not particularly suited to thriving in this American frontier.

Read more: First Cow director Kelly Reichardt is too busy making masterpieces for your worst, or even your best, milk joke

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Filming in the harsh and unpredictable outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, Reichardt had to construct the background noise of First Cow completely in post-production – things wouldn’t be so believable were, say, audiences to hear the whoosh of a 747 flying high over Cookie’s head. The film’s sound, or lack thereof, is a small detail but an essential one. The care that Reichardt puts into First Cow’s sound builds a bridge to the similar care she takes with the spare set design, the natural lighting, the stripped-down narrative, the lived-in performances and so on, until it’s two hours later and she’s stealthily delivered a full, immersive, complete world. One that feels totally natural, if idiosyncratic when shoved up against the expectations of contemporary filmmaking.

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Oh, and she does this all by telling a story about a cow. Not just a cow, as the title makes clear, but the first cow to ever roam Oregon. The animal has been brought over by the trading post’s local bigwig, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), all the way from California. And though the dairy cow has lost her mate and calf along the way, there is still an opportunity for Chief Factor to finally add cream to his coffee – which is where Cookie comes in.

First Cow is a film intent on exploring struggle and potentially futile determination.

Courtesy of TIFF

Teaming up with an ambitious Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie begins to sneak onto Chief Factor’s property in the dead of night to milk the precious bovine, then surreptitiously use her milk as the “secret Chinese ingredient” in the pair’s “oily cakes,” which sell like, um, oily hotcakes to famished traders. Cookie and King-Lu see the scheme as their ticket to a better future – Cookie wants to operate his own farm, King-Lu to run a hotel in San Francisco – but as things tend to go in Reichardt films, the crushing reality of American capitalism comes to bear down on the dreamers sooner or later.

Based on Reichardt’s long-time collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s novel, First Cow is not a leisurely or easygoing film, despite how soft a picture that above synopsis might paint. It is a film intent on exploring struggle and potentially futile determination, and in Cookie and King-Lu’s oily-cake empire, Reichardt finds an intriguing new avenue and world to explore themes that have long anchored her work, from 2008′s Wendy and Lucy to 2013′s Night Moves: economic struggle, the anxiety that is living on the fringe of society and America’s default urge to exploit.

Raymond’s novel spent almost equal attention on Cookie and King-Lu’s story as it did on a modern-day narrative to properly identify their accidentally excavated remains. With the exception of an intriguing and ultimately haunting opening scene involving a dog walker (Alia Shawkat) along Oregon’s Columbia River, Reichardt ditches any here-and-now setting to zero in on a history that also feels purposefully contemporary: who cannot relate to well-meaning souls determined to escape their circumstances, no matter the greedy and clueless villains who stand in the way?

Few of Reichardt’s tactics might work as well as they do were it not for her excellent pairing of Magaro and Lee. Typically, Reichardt is able to land a familiar face to anchor her decidedly anti-commercial projects (Kristen Stewart in Certain Women, Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves, Michelle Williams across three projects now), providing a comforting entry point for wary audiences. That’s not the case here – unless someone considers Jones a verified box-office draw, which I sincerely wish was the case. Yet it is also difficult to imagine anyone other than Magaro and Lee in the lead roles – their chemistry feels genuine, the friendship they form onscreen remarkably real. May First Cow turn them into household names. (I realize my dreams here are sometimes as absurd as Cookie and King-Lu’s.)

As our heroes’ fortunes rise and fall, though, it is all you can do to hope that Reichardt and Raymond have pulled some sort of dirty narrative trick here. That the conclusion which they foreshadow in First Cow’s opening minutes – and which I won’t spoil here, even though, yeah, it’s really all spelled out in the literal first three minutes – is some sort of narrative fake-out. You hold your breath and convince yourself that the inevitable isn’t arriving. And all Reichardt offers to comfort you is a remarkable quiet.

First Cow opens March 13

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