Orion Lee and John Magaro gave awards-worthy performances in Kelly Reichardt's overlooked moral fable/bovine heist thriller.
First Cow
Credit: A24

They're destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 93rd Oscars ceremony on April 25, EW is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.

The film: Another Oregon tale from director Kelly ReichardtFirst Cow finds unexpected comedy and heartbreaking thrills in a tense historical landscape. A chef nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) looks pretty well lost in the forests of the early 19th century Pacific Northwest. He's a gentle man in a hard world. Then he meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a charismatic Chinese traveler who spins larger-than-life tales of distant lands. When Cookie reveals a talent for pastries, King-Lu convinces his new friend to go into business selling tasty treats at the local fort.

One crucial ingredient, though, is milk. And the region's only cow is a hot commodity jealously guarded by its wealthy owner, Chief Factor (Toby Jones). So First Cow is, in part, a slow-motion heist movie, with Cookie and King-Lu sneaking out just enough liquid gold from the sacred udder to maintain a booming biscuit business. It's a very American sort of friendship — the talented worker and the charismatic salesman — and they dream of success in San Francisco. Then Chief Factor tastes Cookie's cake. Problems arise.

Why it wasn't nominated: Reichardt is one of our country's greatest independent filmmakers, which is a roundabout way of saying her excellent movies don't always make much money in theaters. First Cow had a hopeful trajectory, though, earning a per-theater average of $24,015 in its first weekend of limited release. "The opening was a solid start for the film that will hopefully fuel the long roll-out that will continue into spring," wrote Dino-Ray Ramos at Deadline on March 8, 2020. A few days later, the country shut down into a new pandemic normal, and that first weekend basically became First Cow's only weekend.

What would have happened to First Cow's box office grosses? is certainly the 50 trillionth most important counterfactual question about COVID-19. And general critical accolades turned First Cow into a must-watch when it finally debuted on VOD in the summertime. Still, Reichardt's famously gradual filmmaking style (I refuse to call it slow!!) inspires awe on the big screen. I wonder if the measured pace turned off even some adventurous viewers at home.

And even by the off-kilter standard of somber neo-Westerns, First Cow is cheerfully anti-iconic, with non-gunslinger leads conducting ludicrously modest bovine crime in a world of mud. The story takes several left turns, including a prologue flashforward (hi, Alia Shawkat!) and the near-wordless depiction of the central friendship. That rambling narrative pays off with an exciting second hour, but there's a certain megaphone quality to even the good Best Picture nominees this year, so many capital-t Themes discussed by capital-c Characters. That's just not Reichardt's bag, and First Cow's stunner ending is demolishing precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: First Cow explodes conventional definitions of its genre, embedding itself deep in the cultural collisions of a heavily disputed landscape. King-Lu and Cookie are both migrants in a faraway place, and Reichardt patiently explores the crosscurrents of multicultural Oregon decades before statehood. They're also savvy businessmen — well, King-Lu is — and their financial saga is somehow satiric and mythic, as the titular cow becomes a lovable-surreal symbol of the sincere dreams and shady larceny underpinning frontier capitalism.

First Cow is also much funnier than Reichardt's first Western masterpiece, the drama-of-dehydration wagon-train sadventure Meek's Cutoff. The leads make a splendid odd couple, especially as their modestly devious plot spins beyond their control. Magaro, probably best known for his villainous turn in The Umbrella Academy, plays Cookie with an impossibly huggable sweetness, and the actor's watchful eyes evoke feelings of sorrow and fear as the film edges closer to tragedy. Lee's had small roles in big films (including The Last Jedi and Justice League), which makes his magnetic performance here a genuine star turn. It's hard to tell if King-Lu is a legendary adventurer or a big-talking huckster, but the way he plots grand ambitions from a shabby shack suggests a lost bit of backwoods folklore.

The gathering acclaim for Reichardt makes some Academy love feel inevitable: Maybe for her oncoming Michelle Williams collaboration Showing Up, or maybe the ultimate make-good victory with an honorary Oscar years from now. First Cow offers a handy highlight reel of everything Reichardt has brought to cinema. The film's unforgettable final act is at once intimate and epic, plunging deep into the all-encompassing forest even as it bares the main characters' souls. Its greatness will only become more essential as America's vision of itself, and its history, gets more expansive and complicated. 

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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