Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Running Time: 122 mins
First Cow is an American film about a cook from New England who travels to Oregon in the early 19th century. There, he meets a Chinese immigrant, with whom he establishes a successful business that sees both their stock in society rise.
A rustic, patient period drama, First Cow certainly takes its time when telling a story of finding success, friendship and meaning in life in even the most alien of circumstances. As worthy and earnest as that story is, this film goes about telling it in an infuriatingly dull manner, with a slow cinema style that proves far more of a barrier to grabbing your attention than a way of deepening your connection to its characters.
First things first, I have nothing against films being slow. In fact, some of the most thought-provoking and emotionally resonant films are ones that take their time in establishing characters, important themes and emotional depth.
First Cow, however, goes about telling its story in such monotonous fashion that you never get the chance to form a connection with its characters as the story builds to a crescendo. Stylistically, fast pacing certainly wouldn’t match the film’s rustic atmosphere, but a degree of dramatic build could have made a world of difference to this movie.
Looking at First Cow in comparison with the excellent but undeniably slow Slow West, it’s clear where the film goes wrong in being patient with its screenplay and storytelling. As I’ve just mentioned, the movie really doesn’t build to much of a crescendo, playing out in a fairly flat tone from start to finish.
Now, while Slow West may use action and the prospect of action in its latter half to add to that dramatic build, First Cow aims to use a complex dramatic relationship between characters to further entice you in its story. The problem, however, is that the film’s main dramatic intrigue comes about in the last act, well over an hour after the beginning.
As a result, the film lost me long before it ever really started, and despite the clear time and intention that went into making First Cow a slow-burning drama, it wastes time in the opening half establishing that rustic vibe, and does little to really develop the characters.
Faith and confidence in a film is an important thing, and although there is genuine dramatic depth in the film’s second half, I had so little faith after a frankly tedious first hour to really seek to find intrigue in the story at hand.
It’s a symptom of an over-indulgent cinematic style on the part of director Kelly Reichardt and less-than-stellar performances from leads John Magaro and Orion Lee, both of which make First Cow a real chore to get through.
Overall, then, I really wasn’t that impressed with First Cow. A strikingly rustic drama it may be, but it’s a film that goes too far with its patient, slow-build style, proving almost unwatchably dull in its first half, and not doing enough to salvage your attention in the second. So, that’s why I’m giving the film a 5.9.