If you have never seen a Kelly Reichardt film, then it may be worth noting that her pacing is deliberate. From her debut Old Joy to her new film First Cow, she is a filmmaker from another time, where stories unfold at their own slow pace, allowing the viewer plenty of time to mull over the themes of her work. She is an extremely gifted filmmaker in the way she develops relationships onscreen that are hard to forget, particularly male friendships. However, a long run-time can make her talents less potent and that is the case with the often wonderful but agonizingly slow First Cow.
The film is based on Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half Life and he helped Reichardt adapt it for the screen. The opening begins in modern times where a young woman finds her dog digging up something. She takes over and begins to dig with intense focus. Reichardt frames the shot, in a 4:3 box format, to never quite let us see what she is digging up until a shot reveals a white rock that appears to be a skull. A wider shot reveals two skeletons, side by side. We then abruptly cut to another time period, that of the early 19th century in the Oregon Territory during what seems to be the Gold Rush.
Setting up the film as a mystery, who are the skeletons found, is a clever trick but the film quickly forgets about that until its emotional ending. We first meet Cookie (John Magaro), a gentle-natured chef who has taken up with a fur trapping group. One night he runs across a naked Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee). Cookie is kind to him and the two go their separate ways. Fate brings them together again and soon they become friends and business partners.
Their business is making oily cakes. Cookie hears about a rich Captain (Toby Jones) who has the first cow in the territory. He knows he can make some great things with access to milk so the two men begin stealing milk in the middle of the night. This main plot point doesn't happen until an hour into the film and that is goes back to Reichardt's pacing. While the slowness of the film gives us plenty of time to know these men, revel in the details of the time and ponder on the nature of friendship and kindness, it robs the film of any momentum. I have rarely felt so thrilled by a scene of someone milking a cow but it is one of the first moments in First Cow with any sense of drama.
The two lead performances are both remarkable. Magaro portrays Cookie as a man out of time, too kind and gentle for the harshness of the times. Lee gives King a regal pride that causes the character to become greedy over time. Their friendship is wholly believable and genuinely moving. It reminds us that the simplest kind gestures can be the seeds for lifelong friendships. Reichardt has a great sense for details of the time and First Cow feels authentic as a result. However, the long run-time and slow pace of the film almost undo some of the power of this story. If the film shaved off 25 minutes or so, it would be remarkable. As it is, First Cow is still very good.