FIRST COW is a good movie to be sure, a very slow burn that rewards the viewer’s patience in the second half, however I’m not so sure I’d go as far to say it’s Oscar worthy. It’s a solid film I’d likely watch a few more times, but I can’t see it’s name being called when the Best Picture winner is announced later next year. It’s not Oscar worthy to me because of a few complaints I’ll get to here in a minute, and I feel that maybe I watched the film after already being on board the over hype train the past couple of months. It was quickly taken out of theaters because of the pandemic and the studio was waiting to see if theaters would open up soon after so that they could just put it back in. Alas, it was not meant to be. The critics and others who saw it though praised it as the film that could “go all the way to gold this year.” A24 finally gave up and released it VOD back on July 10th. I finally got around to watching it yesterday. And yes, I enjoyed it. The acting is solid and so is the friendship between the two lead characters, but it felt like a couple of things were missing. Namely, this film does that thing that I absolutely hate: it shows a scene way way way in the future and then it goes back in time and tells the story to get to that place in time. Only movie off the top of my head that does this where I ended up forgiving it was Inception. To me, when you do that, it takes out the mystery of what might have happened to these characters, unless a twist is revealed showing that what you saw you didn’t really see (i.e. Inception). But this being a drama, there is no twist. It is what it is.
Per IMDB, its log line for First Cow is as follows: “A skilled cook has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business.” That successful business is basically stealing milk from the one and only cow in the area and charging up the wazoo for homemade buttermilk biscuits. The movie is such a slow burn though that it really doesn’t get to the story until about an hour into the lengthy two hour film. There are a lot of shots that seemingly go on for minutes and some of them go nowhere. For instance, there is a two to three minute shot of a boat on a river. This is at the beginning of the film. It’s an establishing shot, but it shouldn’t have gone as long as it did. The film does this several times within the first hour, but thankfully in the second half, even though the long shots continue, they seem to actually have a purpose. Again, that is the reward for the viewers that have stuck with the film this far. The friendship between the Chinese immigrant and the skilled cook is the best part about this film, however when the film splits them apart several times, which it really shouldn’t have done (mostly in the climax of the film too), the pacing seemed to be a bit off for me. Maybe though that could just say something about the movie in that it successfully got me invested in the characters, where I really didn’t want them to split up. So in the end, consider that critique of mine minor.
However, other than the beginning flash forward of the film, the story, while solidly told, is very predictable and doesn’t really go the lengths it needed to, in my opinion. The beginning of the film, should’ve really been placed at the end and it would’ve had a more emotional impact for me. When it cuts to black/end credits, I said out loud, “yeah I know that’s it, but it shouldn’t be.” Again, you could see the film much more differently than I and might end up thinking I’m out of my mind. I have not seen director Kelly Reichardt’s other films, but she does an excellent job here. She knows how to frame a scene to show the viewer and not just tell what is going on. She just did a little too much of a slow burn though. She co-wrote the screenplay with the novels author, and it’s a solidly structured product, albeit a little too predictable for my tastes. I was trying to come up with a curve ball the story could’ve thrown at the characters, and came up with quite a few, yet the story unfortunately never went there, it just traveled down a path I’ve walked along too many times before while watching movies. The chemistry between actors John Magaro and Orion Lee is undeniable and is definitely worth the price of admission. That is to say if it does get nominated for a bunch of things next year, I wouldn’t be totally against it. I just feel it’s being a little overpraised for what it is. But I’m glad I watched it and will be watching it again if it does get nominated early next year, to see if I missed anything I didn’t catch on my first viewing. It wouldn’t be a first if that happens.