Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I saw a movie in a theater. No, not this week (I am writing on July 9), not in the midst of the still-erupting pandemic. I saw the film on February 27, 2020, and I realize only now, by looking at my calendar, that this was the last time I was in a movie theater.
Boy, am I glad I saw this one that way. Not that you shouldn’t watch Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow by streaming it, which you now can. But this film in particular—with its humble but sensitive eye for the way light falls through trees, and its absolutely precise ear for the muffled snap of a mushroom being picked in a damp forest—looms especially large in retrospect as something that thrives on a big screen. In the theater. You know, the way we used to do it.
In short: This is cinema, folks. I suppose it’s possible I might have strong feelings even for the middling likes of Call of the Wild (saw it on Feb. 13) or Emma (Feb. 11) if one of them had been the last film I saw in a theater before the pandemic hit. I might even get a little misty-eyed over Bad Boys 3 (Jan. 15), just out of sheer “nostalgia for the light,” to borrow a phrase. But I’m glad the send-off was First Cow, because if this isn’t the best movie of the year, it will serve until something else comes along. But seriously, it might be the best movie of the year.
We are in 19th-century Oregon, truly the far side of what passes for civilization; two men, having come to this green timberland through very different courses, strike up a friendship. One is Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), the other King Lu (Orion Lee). At loose ends but entrepreneurial by nature, they realize that a possible fortune awaits if Cookie could apply his culinary skills to making pastries for the locals. But how can they get the secret ingredient—milk—when the only cow in the territory is owned, under careful supervision, by the governor (Toby Jones)?
They steal, of course. And this has implications, and suspense, and joy, too. Reichardt’s film (written with Jonathan Raymond from his novel) has a lot of subjects beyond this central situation—it’s a western, and a love story, and a political film—and all of those subjects come alive under the director’s inquisitive gaze. Reichardt nods evocatively in the direction of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (to the point of including a cast member from that film, Rene Auberjonois), yet First Cow feels completely original. It is warm and earthy but as clean as bleached bones.
Tone is an underrated component of directorial art, and the wonderfully sustained tone of First Cow blends gentle comedy and danger, with—we suspect, based on the modern prologue—something mortal on the way. Comedy is closely bound to humanity, and Cookie and King Lu are richly human, thanks to Reichardt’s generosity and the splendid performances by Magaro and Lee. Cookie is quiet, sort of schlumpy, his eyes beaming with a kind of Gene Wilder-like sadness; King Lu is upright, loquacious, with an elegance that remains despite his current lack of advantage in the world. Their friendship is a product of circumstance, and yet it is deep. The movie that clasps them together is similarly profound.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.