First Cow is a Dry Heifer

First Cow (2020)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

A24, 121 minutes, PG-13



 I planned to see First Cow back in March, but COVID-19 closed the theatre before I had a chance to do so. Now I can officially say at least one good thing has come out of the virus. I didn’t spend $10 to see it.


Director Kelly Reichardt is known for both her deliberate pacing and her love of the West. Four previous films are, like First Cow, set in Oregon: Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013). At her best, Reichardt gives us small slices of Americana that focus on the kind of ordinary people that Hollywood generally ignores. Her Certain Women, set in Montana, was one of my favorite films of 2016. But Reinhardt seriously misfires with First Cow, a film so slow you’re tempted to check if you have a pulse.


The setting is the Oregon Territory of the 1820s. That’s not the official U.S. region organized in 1848, rather a sprawling region stretching throughout the Northwest that encompassed parts of four eventual states, most of modern-day British Columbia, and parts of southern Alaska. At this point in history, the United States, Britain, and Russia all laid claim to the area, none of whom gave a hoot about indigenous peoples already on the land. Non-natives entered a place more akin to the Wild West than that mythical land ever was. Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvet do a superb job of making us see how travelers, settlers, and fortune-seekers could get swallowed up in its very vastness. To the degree that Euro-American style civil authority existed at all, it was in scattered “forts” such as Fort Tillicum (present-day Washington State), which is where our two principals end up.


They are Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), the cook for a band of fur trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the lam for killing a Russian, whom Otis feeds on the sly. Otis cashes out and sets off for Fort Tillicum, where he again encounters Lu, who has a cabin nearby into which Otis moves. Fort Tillicum is not for the faint of heart. It is a muddy cesspit with a hard-drinking bar, a small native encampment, and whites living in ramshackle cabins and makeshift tents. The only substantial home in the fort belongs to the Chief Factor (agent) and life there is so rudimentary that the big excitement is the arrival of the namesake first cow. (Its partner died on the trip to Oregon.) Otis and Lu pass their days daydreaming of heading off to San Francisco to open a hotel or bakery, but they don’t have the wherewithal to get there.


When they observe the cow being milked by a lad named Lloyd (Ewen Bremner), Lu hits upon the idea of sneaking in at night to help themselves to the cow’s bounty. With the pilfered milk, Otis reverts back to being Cookie and his oily cakes, biscuits, and fritters are soon in high demand. See Otis bake. See Lu sell. See a key character have his cake taken by another. Not exactly what one would call heart-stopping action.


Just a few more batches, and it’s California here we come. That small detail is one of the biggest clichés in film. Therein lies a second major problem in the film. Foreshadowing is a time-honored device but in First Cow, the film’s ending is predestined by the modern find that opens the film and all that can possibly be revealed is how it happened. Once the cow’s owner is identified half way through, we know how and why as well. The only thing left is dotting the i’s.


First Cow also wastes some of its talent. Gary Farmer is a well-known Native-American actor, but he’s practically silent in this film. The Chief Factor is veteran British character actor Toby Jones, and his role is little more than that of Chief Egoist. You know anyone billed simply as “Chief Factor’s wife” won’t have much to do, and it’s a crying shame to subordinate the sublime Lily Gladstone (Blackfoot/Nez Perce). To add a note of solemnity, First Cow was one of the final projects for the late Réne Auberjohn (Deep Space Nine’s Odo) and it’s a mere cameo.


Metaphorically speaking, Kelly Reichardt painted herself into a corner with a poorly storyboarded tale. There is something to be said for making slow-paced slice-of-life films, but when anything remotely dramatic is taken from viewers, all that’s left is boredom.


Rob Weir


Rebecca Loebe, Silversun Pickups. Ellen Starski, Devil Makes Three, Salim Nourallah, Wonder Years


Perhaps you remember Rebecca Loebe from The Voice or caught her opening for someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, or Ellis Paul. These days she’s been headlining on her own, which is right and proper. As a kickoff to Give Up Your Ghosts, she made material available from her wonderful 2010 debut Mystery Prize. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with this rising talent who, after a stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music now lives in Austin­. Loebe has a fondness for love songs–just not the ordinary kind. “Mystery Prize” is an example of that. It’s about a first date that might be the perfect man, though she’s not sure: I got my eye on the mystery prize. After all, love is a blood sport, you lose if you draw/You can only win if no one loses at all. “Marguerita” is a lovely song of two lovers. The catch? They are illegal immigrants who have been caught and separated. “California” is a love song to the Golden State, but one she’s leaving before the alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine drag her down. “Land and Sea” is wonderfully enigmatic. Does she wake up to second thoughts, or was it a very naughty dream? Loebe goes for a country vibe on “Married Man.” Its line You can’t knit socks for a married man/No matter how you tell yourself it’s fine is a dangerous attraction cautionary metaphor. Loebe has traveled and produced a lot since 2010, but she still likes to keep things a bit mysterious.   


Silversun Pickups
engender strong opinions. Their newest record, Widow’s Weed has been called a “gem” and “emotionally satisfying.” It’s also been dismissed as “forgettable” and “mostly boring.” This LA-based rock band draws comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, which means they’re hard to pin down. Silversun has been labeled post-punk, indie, dream pop, and “shoegazing,” the latter of which fits, once you get past the silly handle and know it’s basically acid rock. In truth, their full electric sets can be ragged and there’s not a lot of poetry in their lyrics. Maybe they’re better unplugged; their four-song set at Paste Studios is good stuff. The quartet is stripped down to just Brian Aubert putting his voice and his acoustic guitar through the paces, and Nikki Monninger laying down aggressive bass and adding harmonies. One offering is their 2009 single “Panic Switch,” which seems to be about an anxiety attack, and the rest are from Widow’s Weed. The most enigmatic of is “Freakazoid” lyrics such as, And this freakazoid/Who needs a little relief/Relief, relief… don’t unlock a song about someone trying to believe he’s trying. (To do what?) “Don’t Know Yet” is a can-this-relationship-be-saved song. Perhaps not; and it’s time to reboot the machine. “It Doesn’t Matter Why” won’t win any literary awards either, but Silversun Pickups is about energy in the moment. Count me among the satisfied.


Ellen Starski
has a unique voice that’s husky in a whiskey-steeped way. I adored her debut album, When Peonies Prayed for Rain (2018). And then she moved to Nashville. Sara’s Half-Finished Love Affair is a deeply disappointing sophomore release. I place the blame on the poor judgment of producers Lucas Morton and Max Hoffman. The album is well-written and it’s based on a cool idea. “Sara” is Starski’s composite of women she’s met plus some internal thoughts. She used these to imagine how life and love play out over the years. Alas, Nashville smoothed her edges and turned her into just another doggie in Generica Corral. “Come to Me Lover” cries out for gritty treatment, not echoey processed pop and little girl tones. This is almost as baffling as the faintly Liverpudlian accent we hear on “Have We Forgotten.” “Never Met a Ghost”has a bluesy melody that commands a soulful vocal. Instead, the mix is so thick that Starski could be singing cereal box ingredients. And what’s with the odd spaciness of “The Satellite That Changed Its Tune?” Was Sara in love with ET? The title track is pretty, if one overlooks the dreadful instrumental bridges and the outro with interstellar electronic crickets. Find Your Way” would be a great song if given a Bill Withers treatment and without intrusive percussion. There’s not a song on the album that’s not overproduced.    




The Devil Makes Three
hadn’t released a new album since 2013 until Chains are Broken. You can hear a few tracks off that record, including “Castles,” a nice song about a woman who keeps falling for Mr. Wrongs when Mr. Right is right in front of her. TDMT used to rock out more, but these days they are mostly an acoustic country folk trio (or quartet when touring) anchored by dry-toned vocalist Pete Bernhard. “Castles” features crystalline acoustic riffs from Cooper McBean, the go-to guy for leads, with Lucia Turino putting down the bass lines. Try also “Mr.Midnight,” (2014) with its rockabilly feel, and “This Life” (2011), a bit of country breakdown about making the best of what life throws at you.


Maybe it’s the times, but I lost interest in Let’s Be Miserable Together, the first of five planned EPs by Texas songwriter Salim Nourallah. The title track sets the mood with its tag line, If we can’t be happy on our own.. let’s be miserable together. That could be funny, but it comes across as embracing misery. Doses of irony and satire would help, but the EP is mostly a laconic pity party. “Winners” is another example. It could be a devastating take-down of hipsters, but feels more like an outsider’s jealousy. The melodies of two of the tracks, “Assassins” and “A Simple Love,” sound like raw acoustic Beatles tracks before studio enhancements. Wrong album for wrong times.


I can’t help contrast Nourallah to the power punk band The Wonder Years. They’re supposed to be filled with angst, right? They are, but these heroes of the Vans Warped Tour temper thrash and bang with wry commentary and the right touch of sentiment. “Washington Square Park” contains likes such as: The whole world’s full of losers/If you get a chance to win take it. “Hoodie Weather” is a very unflattering gottta-get-outta-here look at South Philadelphia, but there’s also sympathy mixed with the sadness. “We Look Like Lightening” is about being scared on an airplane. Yeah, I can relate. Caution: This is one loud band, so you might want to search for acoustic tracks; rest assured, Dave Campbell’s vocals will still raise the roof. And if you find the Paste Studio session, the tracks are mislabeled.


Rob Weir


Sienna Miller Redeems American Woman


American Woman (2019)

Directed by Jake Scott

Roadside Attractions, 111 minutes, R (language, drug/alcohol use)





With under $237,000 in ticket sales, American Woman didn’t exactly light up the box office. I suppose that’s understandable given its harrowing subject of a woman whose daughter goes missing. It’s also an uneven effort with a cast drawn from the B-list, though its central actor, Sienna Miller, is the real deal who papers over many of the plot holes. She makes American Woman worth a look, despite its translucent cavities.


American Woman is set in Pennsylvania, but Keystoners won’t recognize anything; it was filmed in Massachusetts. The central character is 33-year-old Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller), a single mother to 16-year-old Bridget (Sky Ferreira). Mom is a mess. She lives close to the margin, drinks and smokes too much, has a horrible attitude, and even worse taste in men. It’s not clear if she’s just easy or if she’s doing a little hooking on the side, but Bridget’s father is not in evidence. Deb is the sort to tell anyone to piss off, and that includes her mother Peggy (Amy Madigan), and her sister Katherine (Christina Kendricks) and her husband Terry (Will Sasso), who live across the street.


Bridget is no peach either. She’s rough around her dyed hair edges, hangs out with druggies, and has an infant son of her own. Deb and Bridget rocket back and forth between bickering and affection of sorts. The status quo changes over night, when Deb reluctantly agrees to watch Jesse and Bridget never returns. Joni Mitchell famously wrote, “You don’t what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” and that’s Deb’s breaking point. Foul play is suspected, but there’s really no evidence for it–one of the film’s holes. The longer Bridget is missing, the more hysterical Deb becomes and the more Bridget becomes more mythical than real.


How does one recover from such a blow? Deb’s first instincts are in keeping with her play-tough and live-fast-and-hard patterns. She lights out after Bridget’s boyfriend, who is Jesse’s father, though there’s nothing to connect him to anything other than being a worthless druggie. Old habits die hard. For Deb, there’s always another boyfriend and it hardly matters if he’s married and/or abusive. It’s only when she hits the muddy bottom that she begins to consider crawling out of the pit. After all, someone has to raise Jesse.


Another film hole is that the passage of time is too rapidly truncated. Deb does begin to get her act together and starts to see Tyler (Alex Neustaeder), an affectionate ex-boyfriend who is a rehabbing addict. More bad things will happen, and Bridget becomes what detectives call a “cold” case. That will be resolved eventually and one wonders if maybe it would have been better had that not been the case. There are plenty of good things to say about this film, but Brad Ingelsby’s script is not among them.


American Woman could have been the turkey its box office suggests, were it not for Miller. She is an underrated actress, perhaps because she has played so many bit parts, has no time for the tabloid press, prefers London to Hollywood, and took time away from movies to perform in theatre. Her filmography isn’t impressive, but her acting chops are. In American Woman she invents her own cycle of grieving: blame, swear, give-up, clear out the garbage, reinvent, and cope. Hers is a portrait of hope tempered by realism. She makes the second half of the film as good as the first half is bad. Although we could use more films about the plight of the working-class poor, Inglesby misfires by writing Miller’s early role as akin to Julia Roberts’ bad-girl act in Mystic Pizza sans her heart of gold. It makes it harder to believe in Deb’s subsequent transformation, but Miller rises to the occasion. Best of all, it comes on Deb’s terms. Hold the metaphorical knight in shining armor or deus ex machina resolutions.


The dynamics between Miller and Hendricks are also quite good. Katherine is the good angel to Deb’s devil, with Terry acting as referee. Yet, we see genuine caring peeking through the seams, as well as evolving relationships. I wish the same could be said of Amy Madigan’s role as Peggy. She isn’t given much to do and responds with a walk-through performance appropriate for what was on offer. The same can be said of E. Roger Mitchell, who plays Detective Sergeant Morris. One could accuse director Jake Scott of tokenism, as Mitchell’s is the only black face in sight.


You can expect rocky moments, but American Woman is a great example of how a few good performances redeem a half-baked script.


Rob Weir