In the early days of the Oregon Territory, life was hard. The elements were harsh, and the lush landscape could be unforgiving. Experienced foragers and small-game hunters might go days without running across much potential for vittles. The brave souls who ventured out in search of gold or precious pelts had to watch out for wild animals and the far-wilder men also competing for those prizes, especially if hunger and whiskey entered the picture. It was, to put it mildly, no country for sensitive men. You couldn’t find a halfway decent scone or buttermilk biscuit for miles around.
This is the world that Kelly Reichardt drops you into in First Cow, a manifest-destiny epic in D minor and an excursion into the past that, except for a brief present-day preamble, makes you feel as if you’ve tread miles in muddy terrain beside these feral trappers and frontier eccentrics. It also introduces you to two men who seek to rectify that last injustice. Otis Figowitz (John Magaro) is a cook — everyone calls him “Cookie” — traveling with a pack of furriers and hired to tend to their culinary needs. King Lu (Orion Lee) is the naked man he finds hiding in the bushes in their camp late one evening; the stranger had killed a “Russian villain” in self-defense and is fleeing members of the victim’s party. Cookie clothes him, feeds him, and gives him shelter for the night. The next day, Lu slips away. But a bond has been formed.
When the two men meet up again, in the saloon of a nearby trading post, Cookie has parted ways with his belligerent employers and Lu has turned a cabin in the woods into a home. The men live together, discussing their self-made-man daydreams. Maybe they’ll export beaver glands to China. Maybe they’ll open up a hotel or a bakery. “There’s no way for a poor man to start,” Lu says. “You need capital.” “Or leverage,” Cookie responds. “Or a crime,” Lu adds. Enter the cow.
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It seems that the town bigwig, an effete Englishman named Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has purchased a bovine family for his estate. The bull and the calf died along the journey up from San Francisco. The cow, however, now wanders in a meadow behind the rich man’s house. Cookie mentions that if they had some milk, he could make “oily cakes.” Soon, the two are sneaking out at night and liberating some lactose from the animal on the down low. (“Sorry about your husband,” Cookie tells the cow.) Lu suggests they test the waters and take these baked goods to market. They can sell “a little taste of home” to these lost men. And because every generation gets the cronut they deserve, their products are a runaway success. They have people literally fighting to get a taste for a handful of ingots. They seem to have attracted the not-entirely-wanted attention of Chief Factor as well.
This isn’t the first time Reichardt has tracked two men wandering in the wilderness (see Old Joy), nor is it the first time she’s looked to our nation’s unruly adolescence out West to examine our perpetually unstable present (see what’s arguably her masterpiece — though the competition for that slot is fierce — Meek’s Cutoff). Her characteristic emphasis on stillness and silence is here in spades; this is a movie that may stop to observe a barge float slowly down a river, or pause to watch patiently as a man fries balls of dough in burbling oil. Like Reichardt’s four previous collaborations with screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, who also wrote the source-material novel “The Half-Life,” character takes precedence over incident and ambiguity trumps exposition. Esoteric grace notes abound, from casting fellow Portlander Stephen Malkmus as a fiddler to giving a hulking brawler the name “Brilliant William” and a baby. (Bonus: One final appearance of the late character actor René Auberjonois, whose line reading of “Fancy boots, lad!” is so gloriously weird that you keep thinking his cameo was a fever dream.)
But there’s something about the delicacy and modesty of what Reichardt is doing here that feels unique, even as she’s transporting you back to a primordial, partially untapped USA. The square Academy-ratio frame, previously used to take the piss out of a genre’s grandeur in Meek’s, makes you feel like you’re flipping through old-timey photographs. (“It’s not [about] capturing grand landscapes, but people who have very small lives,” Reichardt said regarding her love of the boxy format.) It also gives every scene these men share an incredible sense of intimacy, as if they’re living in their own private Oregon. They should be the future of the nation: the canny entrepreneur and the extraordinary individual, working a D.I.Y. supply-and-demand business model — one that relies on theft, sure, but still. The capitalist fat cats, the violent brutes, and the corporate powers that be, however, are already vying for pole position as America slouches toward the future. The little guys don’t stand a chance. “History isn’t here yet, but it’s coming,” Lu declares. “Maybe this time we’ll be ready for it.” If history has proven anything, it’s that we’re never ready for it even when we do glimpse it on the horizon.
We have not even begun to talk about what John Magaro and Orion Lee bring to First Cow, or how their rapport provides the lifeblood of the movie. A compelling presence in everything from Not Fade Away to Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, Magaro gifts a gentleness and thoughtfulness to Cookie that resonates in even the smallest of moments: tenderly turning over a flipped-on-its-back newt, sweeping a dirt floor, gingerly placing berries in a prairie home clafoutis, offering condolences to a cow. It’s impossible to think of anyone else doing justice to a role that relies on an inherent sense of reticence, or underplaying the anxiety more effectively. And Lee offers his screen companion a chatty counterpart, a man who can’t seem to keep up with his own ideas or acknowledge the ceiling of his own ambitions. He gives us a portrait of American can-do–ness, personified. Lu knows that he and his partner have hit upon a winning combination. So does Reichardt, who lets these actors carry the bulk of their scenes together. We feel their connection, two strangers seeking solace in a strange land. Which only makes the third act that much more of a bittersweet symphony. Even when you know what’s coming during a second viewing, it still quietly cracks you open.
And it’s their bond, rather than the possible boom or bust that await these men, that’s First Cow‘s real focus. The film might have announced itself with any number of applicable opening quotes drawn from Marx or Thomas Merton, Whitman or Wendell Berry. The William Blake maxim Reichardt and Raymond chose, however, is as revealing as a confession: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s the key that connects the cryptic first scenes to the final moving (in more ways than one) image. How it informs so much of what the movie is getting at is something you’ll find yourself mulling over for weeks after you’ve left the theater. The feeling that you’ve just witnessed a major work from a great American filmmaker, however, is instantaneous.