Review: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ is a remarkably endearing masterpiece

Review: Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’ is a remarkably endearing masterpiece



The Melbourne International Film Festival kicked off last night. Here’s our review of the Opening Night film.

The Melbourne International Film Festival is one of this city’s most iconic events, which is why it was such a bummer to hear that public screenings would not proceed due to COVID-19. The good news for film buffs is that the festival would still continue in a digital format, with a program impressive enough to make the next six weeks of isolation a bit easier to swallow.

The MIFF Opening Night feature is always worth the ticket, especially given that Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow has already received huge accolades at the New York Film Festival by critics and viewers alike. It did not disappoint.

This is Reichardt’s much-anticipated return to the Western genre after 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, with which Jonathan Raymond wrote the screenplay. First Cow is based on a novel by Raymond, and he collaborated with Reichardt again to adapt it for screen.

The film opens in surprising fashion, giving a glimpse of both future and past events, something which hangs over the feature until the very end.

What follows is the simple tale of two isolated men who are drawn together by the circumstances of their time. Both are alone and looking for purpose, and eventually confide in one another to do something even if it means taking a risk.

To say the film is slow-paced is an understatement, so it may not be for everyone. But for those that stick with it, there is true beauty in the ordinary actions of these characters. This is often captured through partially-obscured shots, usually through trees or windows. Such cinematography holds great value as it gives a real sense of what these characters are like, even when no one is watching.

What transpires is the bond between two men at a time when almost everyone around them is fending for themselves just to survive.

The two leads are perfect. John Magaro plays Cookie Figowitz, who is travelling with a group of gold prospectors and struggling to keep them satisfied as their gatherer and chef. While foraging for mushrooms he encounters King Lu, played wonderfully by Orion Lee, a Chinese worker running from his own troubles.

Without having to say much, Figowitz carries himself as someone who just doesn’t fit in. He’s constantly trying to prove his value to those around him, even with his new friend. Lu plays the perfect counterpoint; he is confident, opportunistic and wise. As Lu talks and talks, the meek Figowitz eventually becomes comfortable enough to reveal his dreams of opening a hotel with a bakery. This grows into an idea for making money.

The supporting cast is truly impressive, with familiar faces playing the smallest of roles. Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat opens the film, Trainspotting favourite Ewen Bremner plays a mid-tier soldier, and Toby Jones is excellent as Chief Factor, the owner of the titular cow.

The slow build pays off as the stakes continually rise, and the connection built between these characters will have you wishing they’d just walk away while they’re ahead, before anything can go wrong.

MIFF 68½ runs from now until Sunday August 23. Head to the festival website for tickets and the full program.

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