First Cow (Blu-ray)
Check out our review of First Cow on Blu-ray!
A cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) seeking their fortune in 1820s Oregon hatch a scheme to sell baked goods made with stolen milk. Also stars Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Rene Auberjonois, and Alia Shawkat. Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
First Cow is an unusual, intricate, and often exquisite tale of friendship set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s.
The film stars John Magaro (The Umbrella Academy, Overlord) as “Cookie” Figowitz, a cook traveling with a band of fur trappers in Oregon. After they part ways, Cookie finds himself in a small town in the remote wilderness, with very few options. He finds a friend in a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), and the two hatch a crazy plan to steal milk from the cow belonging to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones).
Using the stolen milk, the two then begin to make money selling baked goods. It’s only a matter of time, however, before their scheme is uncovered.
First Cow isn’t a story about petty crime, however. Based on Jonathan Raymond’s book “The Half-Life” (Raymond co-wrote the screenplay), the film becomes an almost ethereal tale about friendship and basic survival in brutal times, thanks in large part to director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt. The film is shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, capturing the images in an old-school, box-shaped frame that actually lends itself well to the story’s era.
There’s a fairly simple plot here, but Reichardt revels in the minutiae of the settings, while adding a richness to the characters that few films are able to achieve. Magaro and Lee are exceptional in their portrayals of the lead characters, Their chemistry carries a scene, even when nothing much actually happens. They somehow manage to infuse a cow-milking scene with edge-of-our-seat tension that must be seen to be appreciated.
Toby Jones is sublime – as usual – as the Chief Factor, disappearing once again into the role he is given. There are some faces which you will recognize, including the great Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development). Surprisingly, these actors appear as little more than cameos, and they seem criminally underused.
Auberjonois in particular appears as one of the town’s residents, and he should have been given more to do than just react to the characters as they walk past his shack. Sadly, this one of his last roles before his passing in 2019, and a meatier role would have been nice to see.
The film is, at its core, a story about the need for companionship, but it also touches on themes of wealth, status, and man’s penchant for violence. It’s a beautifully-told tale, and after seeing these characters come to life for nearly two hours, Reichardt opts for an abrupt (and somewhat ambiguous) ending. It feels like an odd choice for a film that so slowly and deliberately told its story.
While it is understandable that Reichardt would choose an unconventional and understated ending, one cannot help but think the characters were robbed of telling the story in full. I must admit that the ending isn’t quite as open-ended as one might think – if you watch closely, and watch the documentary included on the blu-ray, it is rather clear what did happen.
Ultimately, when the final credits roll, First Cow’s story isn’t as impactful as the film’s first two acts promise. That shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing it. It’s one of the better films that managed to be released this year, a marvel both visually and emotionally. In the smallest of its interactions, and in the nuances of its performances, First Cow becomes a cinematic experience worth experiencing and appreciating.
VIDEO AND AUDIO
First Cow is shot in a unique perspective, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio that features a square-shaped image, as opposed to the 2.39:1 widescreen image many of today’s blockbusters use. In the documentary included on the blu-ray, director Kelly Reichardt explains her rationale for filming this way, and it makes sense. The forest setting actually compliments the vertically-framed cinematography, and after a few minutes, you won’t even notice the format. The approach to the aspect ratio is similar to one used with equal effect in another film produced by A24, The Lighthouse.
The film was shot digitally, and there is some manipulation of the image. Many of the scenes were shot day-for-night, so they are darkened, and a thin sheen of artificial grain has been added throughout the film. In addition to some color desaturation, the film has a bleak, vintage look overall. Even among the darkened scenes, however, there is excellent detail, but don’t expect top-tier, razor-sharp high definition. This is supposed to look like a period piece, and the video reflects that.
The audio is a solid DTS 5.1 HDMA mix, and while it isn’t particularly active through the channels, clarity is quite good. Forest scenes feature some surround effect, but it isn’t as immersive as one would hope for.
The blu-ray offers very little in bonus features, only a short documentary on the making of the film.
Special features on the disc include:
“A Place in this World” featurette. The making of the film is explored in this mini-documentary. Director Kelly Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond, as well as members of the cast, provide interviews. Running Time: 26:59
Digital Code. A code for a digital copy of the film, redeemable through services including VUDU, FandangoNow, and iTunes, is included. Lionsgate codes are not redeemable through Movies Anywhere.
Release Date: September 8, 2020
Rating: PG-13 (language)
Running Time: 121 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS HDMA
Subtitles: English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish