Movies

Even if You Think You Won’t Like First Cow, You Just Might Love First Cow

The Movie Club, Entry 6.

The two characters from First Cow.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by A24.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

,sdneirf raeD Dear friends,

Sorry, got sucked for a moment there into the deliriously palindromic world of Tenet, which I caught up with on Blu-ray earlier this month. It’s an exhausting movie to think about—and that’s true even if you haven’t seen it! Paradoxical in every sense, Tenet was the one picture this year many of us couldn’t see or get away from. And as Dana suggested in her last dispatch, there’s been something curiously palindromic about the movie’s bizarre, contentious, and still-ongoing rollout: After months of delays, a disappointing theatrical release, and decidedly mixed reviews, Tenet is before us again, swinging back into the year-end conversation on home-viewing formats and meeting with more polarized reactions than ever.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As critics, we usually have the privilege of being among the first to see a movie; in the reality-inverting context of Tenet, it seemed only fitting to catch up with it months after the end of its (needlessly reckless) initial run. Since then there have been other loopy Nolanesque reversals, too, including from Nolan himself—who, in a recent Washington Post interview, seemed to pooh-pooh the narrative that he’d been the one pressuring Warner Bros. to release the film in theaters all along. Dana, your mention of that tone-deaf Tom Cruise video naturally brings to mind his arguably abusive but otherwise inarguable diatribe against members of his Mission: Impossible 7 crew for violating COVID-19 protocols. A carefully timed attempt at image rehabilitation on Cruise’s part? Maybe. I think it should be blasted at the White House on a loop until Inauguration Day, on Imax-caliber speakers.

Advertisement

Anyway, how is Tenet? Like most movies, it is decidedly not worth dying for, though I did enjoy the two and a half hours I spent wrestling with it in the safety and comfort of my living room, to say nothing of the safety and comfort of bathroom breaks, on-screen subtitles, and my remote control. With zero apologies to Nolan and his high-priest-of-cinema showmanship—a routine I appreciate and even cherish in pandemic-free times—I’ll admit that I frequently paused and rewound (or was I fast-forwarding?!) my way through Tenet, the better to wrap my brain around its metaphysical MacGuffins and the usual thickets of Christopher-explains-it-all dialogue. Speaking of which: The most frequently and derisively quoted line from Tenet is “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” which might have been a more useful pro tip if Nolan were closer in spirit to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or David Lynch, filmmakers who actually operate in a register of pure, instinctual dream logic. Not so Nolan: Hard pressed to let the audience add up two and two, his aggressively cerebral, exhaustively annotated movies are like quadratic equations that insist on solving themselves.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I say that with zero derision: I have a much higher tolerance than most for Nolan at his most unrepentantly Nolansensical. I can’t explain why his severe tunnel vision in Tenet, his extreme focus on mechanics over meaning, strikes me as oddly liberating, even charming, when I know that I should find it irritating beyond belief. As you might have heard at some point over the past several months, Tenet is an espionage thriller structured like a palindrome. Or maybe a boomerang, one that doesn’t slide gently back into your waiting grasp so much as smack you upside the head, leaving you feeling bruised, confused, and possibly stricken with amnesia.

I felt all that, for sure. I also found the movie viciously gripping and, more than anything, jaw-droppingly beautiful. All the crystalline clarity the plot might lack is there, I think, in Hoyte van Hoytema’s gleaming photography, in those dreamy Amalfi Coast dives and the still dreamier shots of John David Washington globe-trotting in immaculate suits. Tenet wasn’t remotely the best thing to grace my TV this year, but it was almost certainly the best-looking—and in a 2020 sans blockbuster spectacle, that’s not nothing. Can we separate a film from the disastrous, ill-considered folly of its release? If so, I’ll just note that while Tenet is a hard movie to understand or feel, it’s one I find even harder to dislike, let alone dismiss.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Odie, I know that you recently caught up with (and hated!) Tenet, and I look forward to your thoughts if you’re amenable. Don’t hold back; we can still be Facebook friends at dusk. But I’m even more curious to see if I can coax you into setting aside your Kelly Reichardt reservations and give her latest a try, because to skip First Cow, I think, would be a huge missed steak. (Sorry.)

Like Dana, I find Reichardt’s work exquisite, though I know even a few nonfans have been unexpectedly taken with this one—which is kinda funny, since it’s practically a greatest-hits compilation of her earlier work. First Cow has the 19th-century Oregon setting (but not the ultra-deliberate pace) of her Western Meek’s Cutoff. It has the patiently mounting suspense (but not the whiffed ending) of Night Moves. It has Lily Gladstone, the revelation of Certain Women, plus an early canine shoutout to Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s richest, tenderest movie before this one. Not coincidentally, it’s also her other great film about cross-species friendship, about the deep bonds without which we simply might not survive.

Advertisement

These glancing, self-referential moments, if that’s what they even are, are worn as gracefully as I’ve come to expect and love from an auteur of Reichardt’s quietly perceptive sensibility. But they’re also tethered here to something I’ll admit her earlier films haven’t always had: scrumptious pastry porn, to be sure, but also real narrative drive. First Cow is a gripping, funny, and indelibly American story about the intersections of crime and punishment and friendship and capitalism and race and class and history. And yes, it’s also a story about a cow, a gorgeous brown Jersey named Evie, paired with John Magaro in scenes that coaxed forth the purest, sweetest emotions, miraculously enough, without milking a thing.

Advertisement

I know what Dana means when she posits that Tenet might be the anti–First Cow, though my warped mind sees bizarre points of connection as well. Like Tenet, First Cow is a mashup of buddy comedy and heist thriller. Tenet has bungee jumping; First Cow has bovine pumping. Like Nolan, Reichardt has always been minutely attuned to process; she’s just as interested as he is in showing you the raw mechanics of how things get built, how plans get made, and how they fall apart (she’s just way less showy about it). No bullets are inverted in First Cow, but Reichardt does sneakily fold the two sections of her narrative together, merging past and present in ways that leave you feeling as though you’ve been genuinely transported to another time and place.

Advertisement

I don’t know how persuasive a case I’ve made, Odie, but since First Cow might well be the Kelly Reichardt movie for people who don’t generally care for Kelly Reichardt movies, I hope I’ve moved it up slightly in the screener pile. Anyway, all this talk of directors we’re predisposed to like or dislike reminds me that there are few experiences quite so gratifying, as a critic, as being surprised by a filmmaker you’d mostly written off. As someone who hasn’t had much use for Thomas Vinterberg since The Celebration (and found his earlier Mads Mikkelsen vehicle The Hunt thuddingly one-note), I was as disarmed as Alison by the bittersweet nuances of Another Round, from depressive start to sweet, exuberant finish. For anyone who wants to answer: Was there a filmmaker who pleasantly surprised you this year? Whose work you approached like medicine—or poison—only to find yourself drinking deep?

Cheers,

Justin

Read the next entry here.

Advertisement