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Updated: Apr 6, 2023

An often engrossing film with shades of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller that could have been so much better but for some questionably arty-farty decisions.

In First Cow director Kelly Reichardt explores a story so deceptively simple you feel sure it can never sustain a feature-length film. And yet, during huge chunks of the western, you are engrossed by the narrative of a humble baker and a Chinese immigrant who join forces to sell baked goods made from milk they steel at night from the only cow in the area.

The middle section of First Cow in particular has a revisionist vibe that recalls Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which is a good a compliment as any western can aspire to. Exquisite, understated acting by the two leads - John Magaro and Orion Lee - further highlights the genuinely affectionate platonic bond between two outcasts and keeps you invested in the tale, even in the movie's final act, which in muddled artistic strokes undoes much of the good things that came before.

Because for all the plaudits First Cow deserves there are as many frustrations, including a puzzling contemporary prologue, overly grainy cinematography and an abrupt, ambiguous ending. So overall I think of First Cow as a good movie that could have been so much better with a more focussed approach.

release: 2020

director: Kelly Reichardt

starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Dylan Smith, Alia Shawkat


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