`First Cow’ points to the importance of kindness

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro star in "First Cow."

Close your eyes and picture the traditional American frontiersman. Chances are, we've all got a similar vision of what such a person looks and acts like. “First Cow,” available for digital rental and purchase, begins with a group of these individuals - a collection of white men adorned in fur pelts with thick beards, gruff attitudes and a proclivity for violence. They talk about women as objects they can use for sex and then dispose of. Anything that strikes them as unconventional, they'll try to slaughter it. The cookie for this group is a man by the name of Cookie (John Magaro). He doesn't fit the traditional American frontiersman profile at all.

Soft-spoken and considerate with a kind heart, Cookie isn't the kind of figure we've all been taught to imagine was out there in the earliest days of America. Ditto for Chinese immigrant King Liu (Orion Lee), who strikes up a friendship with Cookie. King and Cookie eventually figure out a way to make money: They'll take some milk from a local cow (played by Evie the cow), owned by the powerful Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and use that milk to make one-of-a-kind biscuits. Nobody else out here has a cow, and that means nobody else can make biscuits laced with milk. Cookie and King will quietly take from the upper class to make food for lower-class citizens.

Kelly Reichardt's “First Cow” is all about the sorts of individuals who don't fit into society's traditional view of masculinity. A key way Cookie and King don't fit into that view is simply by being nice to one another. Screenwriters Reichardt and Johnathan Raymond dedicate much screen time to emphasizing how Cookie and King connect by just listening to the other one. Their respect for one another is even reflected in a quiet scene depicting the two of them doing chores together. So many of the male characters in “First Cow” see other human beings as a hindrance to their own ambitions. For example, at one point Chief Factor mentions that killing disobedient employees is a great way to stir up morale among the other workers.

Factor sees the people who work for him as disposable objects. He's far from the only man to view other human beings in this way. What an unfulfilling way to navigate life. Cookie and King find a much more rewarding existence just by being there for one another. Cookie's sense of kindness even extends to the cow he milks nightly. “First Cow's” most poignant moments come from Cookie's quiet whispers to this bovine. While Factor sees the cow as a financial means to an end, Cookie takes the time to impart sincere apologies to the cow for the recent loss of her husband and calf. He may be taking her milk, but Cookie views the cow as a living thing and not just an object.

The sight of a grown man softly telling a cow, "You're a very good cow," should inspire giggles. Instead, the sight of such genuine kindness in the middle of a dehumanizing world got me all choked up. Much of that comes down to Magaro's performance, which is an impressively rendered creation. Though he tends to speak in a hushed tone, Magaro's voice always manages to capture your attention. It's full of such believable empathy. With Magaro's vocal quality and line deliveries, you never doubt that Cookie truly looks at other people as human beings. Much like that pumpkin patch Linus waited in for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, there's nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see in Magaro's “First Cow” performance.

Magaro and the rest of the “First Cow” cast are framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Much like with Robert Eggers and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio he used on “The Lighthouse,” a more limited amount of space in the frame has fired up the visual imagination of “First Cow” director Reichardt. Impressive pieces of blocking and staging abound throughout the film that makes heavy use of deep focus. There are so many layers of detail in any given image throughout “First Cow,” the viewer is never just focusing on the foreground or on the background. The qualities that make the cinematography different is what makes it great. The same can be said for the lead characters of the engrossing feature “First Cow.”

Douglas Laman is a lifelong movie fan and writer. A graduate of UT Dallas, he is preparing to become a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.

John Magaro is shown  in a scene from "First Cow."