First Cow swept the board at the International Online Cinema Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Score. Kelly Reichardt, the director, was responsible for four of those (she didn’t write the music). The New York Film Critics Circle voted it Best Film. Two travellers, played by John Magaro and Dylan Smith, on the run from a band of vengeful hunters in the 1820s Northwest, dream of striking it rich — but their tenuous plan to make their fortune on the frontier comes to rely on the secret use of a landowner’s prized dairy cow. First Cow‘s rhythm slows down the heart beat; watching this film is almost a meditative experience with beautiful photography, incredible acting and the subtext of friendship. Never has a film about two losers and the platonic love they have for each other felt more moving or more engaging. Simply wonderful.
First Cow, adapted by Reichardt with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond from the latter’s novel The Half Life, is many things. A simultaneously gentle and unsparing dissection of the formative flaws of capitalism, and thus of the ‘American dream’; a frontier story which captures the harsh realities and simple pleasures of a life built painstakingly from rock, wood, and soil; a heist movie; an argument for the power of baked goods. It is somehow both brutal and pastoral, peaceful and laced through with the inevitability of disaster and death. (Nothing fragile can hold forever—not a tree branch, not a ruse, not luck, and not peace, no matter what Tyler’s beautiful, serene score might trick you into believing.) But above all else, it is a story of friendship, treated here as a haven and basic human need, as essential as water or bread. The film begins with a quote from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: ‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’. And those bones are, for the viewer as well as the woman (Alia Shawkat) who finds them, both an invitation and a door into that friendship.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall