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Metacritic does a roundup of top ten lists from critics every year. Last year, First Cow did better on this list than any movie other than Nomadland, the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars. Critical reviews aren’t everything and certainly echo chambers develop, but it’s still noteworthy. Don’t look too closely at that list if you’re the kind of person who gets mad at trolls. There’s a streak of contrarianism among people who make these lists that reduces their usefulness, but bonus points indeed to people who picked TV shows, movies that did not come out in the year in question, or even abstract concepts. You truly have advanced the discourse.
That said, First Cow is up there on these lists for a reason. It’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t usually find purchase, but in a diluted pandemic year, this is the perfect time to watch a movie about two people trying to make biscuits to build a better life for themselves. John Magaro (who I only know from smaller roles in Carol and The Big Short) plays Cookie, a man who studied under a baker and now hopes to build a life in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s. We see Cookie’s life with a ragtag crew and the difficulty of the time. He saves a man named King-Lu (Orion Lee, in his biggest role to date by far; he does not yet have a Wikipedia page) from pursuers. King-Lu finds Cookie later and offers to repay the debt with a place to hang out and a bottle they can share. It’s a fast friendship, but one that feels very real both for the time and just how friendships actually develop.
The supporting cast is all fine, but these two have to do all of the heavy lifting. Cookie suggests he can make some baked goods, but he’ll need materials. Lu suggests they steal some milk from the only cow in town, owned by a dangerous, rich, boastful man. Cookie agrees and they do some light crime to develop a small number of biscuits. They’re a hit immediately and they start to build a small nest egg to pay for their big dreams.
It’s a simple story and there’s not really much more than that to tell. Magaro plays Cookie as a quiet, hopeful character. His performance only really gets to shine as he milks the rich man’s cow in quiet, friendly tones. He clearly respects this creature and tells her that her milk is going to great use. This tenderness is important because we need to root for Cookie, but it also extends to the friendship with Lu. Lee steals the show as the brilliant, resourceful King-Lu. He tells Cookie a lot about his life in Asia, but he also gets a lot done with brief details. We learn a lot about how these men see themselves and how they see their world. They tell little jokes to each other and they really, and this is important, seem like they’re friends.
There are a lot of movies about friendship, such that saying that sounds like a reductive description. It’s really not, this is just the story of two guys hanging out in the woods and making biscuits. They dream about opening a modest hotel for travelers. They clearly think about what they wish existed for them and want to provide that for others. Every part of the script and the performances serve to hammer home that these guys are really likable and they just want to steal a little milk to build a better life. No one will even miss it, right?
The conflict comes in when someone does start to miss it, but it’s largely beside the point. The very first scene of the film shows us a cameo from Alia Shawkat who tells her dog to “leave it” as it discovers two skeletons in a grave. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that these two guys aren’t alive two hundred years later, but the choice to do this asks the viewer to start thinking about how they end up right away. The only other opening we get is a huge boat sailing across the screen in real time, an extended shot that doesn’t develop anything beyond a mood. This is the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again. Settle in, this shot tells you, two people are going to die, but we aren’t necessarily going to get to that point right away.
First Cow would not be in my top five of the year, but it does seem right to put it in the top ten. I find myself saying this in this series a lot, but this is another case of a movie being very good at what it wants to be, but that thing not necessarily being what I want to see. First Cow is the story of a friendship between two characters and it develops over two hours. Not a whole lot happens, but what does happen is worth experiencing. The performances, especially Orion Lee’s, are very strong. It’s just a good way to tell a small story in a world that feels real, and shouldn’t that be enough, sometimes?
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Is it very much better than Last Year at Marienbad. For all the “slight” and “slow” you can layer on top of First Cow, it does not open with ten minutes of ultimately meaningless repeated dialogue from unmoving actors. It does not do that. Even with an opening few scenes designed to set your expectations for a slow film, First Cow still gets going on a similarly small, but much more engaging set of events than the artiest of art films.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, it really does feel like a small story told patiently, and maybe too patiently. I walked away feeling pretty good about it but it doesn’t hold your attention very well during the runtime. There are confusing, frightening, and seemingly out-of-place images in Persona, but you find yourself hooked and return to it well after finishing it. First Cow is a great film, but it’s not necessarily designed with staying power in mind. It’s okay, it tells a story and that’s fine. That’s all it wanted to do in the first place.
You can watch First Cow on Amazon Prime (if you have Showtime; free trial available). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.