Plainly and broadly speaking, First Cow is the story of two best friends who want nothing more than to make a living selling buttermilk biscuits. Because they have no milk, the men — both diligent but penniless — must extract it in secret from the only cow in the area, owned by a rich landowner uninterested in sharing his dairy. It’s a premise so simple and sweet and down-to-earth, it could have been pulled from the pages of a picture book. But the film’s writer-director, Kelly Reichardt, is a specialist in finding the big stories in the smallest of settings, finding them often planted in the same soil. Her latest drama of struggle and communion on the Oregon fringe is set in 1820, several decades before the territory became a state. As such, it begins to look unmistakably like a national creation myth, tracing the roots of our country’s hoopla filled entrepreneurial spirit — and the harsh reality of how it often collides with established wealth — back to a very modest American dream. Or, to be a little more exacting, to the udders in which everything depends.
Adapted by Reichardt and her frequent writing partner, Jonathan Raymond, from the latter’s 2004 novel, The Half Life, First Cow‘s exquisite atmosphere of textures is felt immediately as the film begins with an excavation. Wandering the woods of Oregon in the present day, a modern-age woman (Alia Shawkat, in a wordless cameo) discovers two skeletons lying side by side, perfectly preserved in the dirt. Right from the jump we know we’re watching an origin story. But this prologue, coupled with a William Blake opening quote, also hints at a timeless and rather literally bare-bones portrait of friendship. Are these the remains of our heroes, two 19th-century men more sensitive and compassionate than the age they were born into?
What we do know, within moments of flashing back in time, is that “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a gentle soul, as he comes across a lizard helplessly turned on its back and flips it over — one of the many sharp little details of behavior that fill Reichardt’s film. Cookie, a cook from Maryland, has come to the area along the lower reaches of the Columbia River with a party of loutish fur trappers; he’s almost comically out of place in the group, like a model of enlightenment among barbarians, and Magaro’s soulful, unassuming performance only further conveys that sense of loneliness. But soon he finds another kindred spirit in King-Lu (Orion Lee), a cosmopolitan Chinese immigrant he stumbles upon in the foliage. The stranger is hiding from men even more hostile and dangerous, perhaps, than the aforementioned fur trappers. And so Cookie, in an act of decency and kindness, feeds and shelters him.
The two meet again at The Royal West Pacific Trading Post, a rickety but bustling encampment that recalls the mining community of intersecting personalities of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Reichardt envisions the place as a microcosm for the whole American experiment: a miniature land of opportunity within the larger one, drawing immigrants from all over, each chasing some kind of economic prosperity. It’s here that Cookie and King-Lu, who end up sharing a shack in the woods, devise a business plan. By night, they’ll sneak out, under the cover of darkness, to milk the only cow in their area, left roped up and unattended on the outskirts of a massive estate. By day, they’ll supply culinary comfort to an undeserved market — including the very man they’re stealing from, a British aristocrat, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who “tastes London” in their honey-glazed pastries.
There isn’t much more to the plot, which comes together gradually, even leisurely over the two-hour running time. Together, Reichardt and Raymond have stripped the latter’s original story down to its skeletal essence, combining characters, and condensing the geographic scope (there’s trip to China in the novel that’s been entirely cut as well as a parallel plot thread set over a century later). The results play more like one of Reichardt’s short-story adaptations, vivid and incredibly precise. Shooting close to the ground, she attunes us to a quiet and less hurried way of life, a wavelength of her own. The first thing we see in First Cow is a cargo ship crossing the frame, from left to right, in real time. It sets the pace — that meditative crawl that can make her movies something of an acquired taste. But this long shot also suggests, visually, the passage of lives across the stream of history.
In many ways, First Cow functions as a kind of greatest-hits guide to the entirety of Reichardt’s oeuvre, and with its 1820 setting, it can count as somewhat of an origin story. The film’s prologue carries an echo of her 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, while the study of masculine friendship may remind some of the world-weary buddies from Old Joy. The Old West setting naturally evokes Meek’s Cutoff, and as he did on that 2010 western, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt here shoots the intricately textured landscape in the nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio that encourages close-quarters intimacy rather than panoramic splendor. Yet with all that, First Cow still feels like new territory for Reichardt, probably because the film balances multiple genres while still being the closest thing she’s ever made to a comedy, just one with some darker undercurrents.
As a place that has long been mythologized as a land of promise and plenty, the American West in First Cow is reclaimed as a zone of uncertainty, danger and profound scarcity, where the myth that is Manifest Destiny is eclipsed, and even mocked, by hard reality. The Chief Factor character is entirely a pompous fool with all the trappings of a white man’s success, including a wife (Lily Gladstone, the revelation in Reichardt’s last film Certain Women) who is one of several Native American characters hovering, quiet but unignorable, on the periphery of the story. We see a visiting military captain (Scott Shepherd) come into the picture only to set off a brief aristocratic pissing contest and throw the story’s painful inequities into even harder relief. The undercurrent ache of First Cow comes from the realization that, even in a world still in the process of being formed, its harsh divisions have already been deeply carved. Nearly every character in this film has next to nothing, and what little they do have — a shiny pair of boots, some silver, an oily cake, a rare friend — can be all too easily whisked away. First Cow, in many ways, feels like its a display of the birth of the American enterprise: a recipe calling for equal parts hard work, ambition, and a willingness to break the rules when necessary. Yet whether even that‘s enough to claim a piece of the proverbial pie is a question that hangs over the film’s low-key vision of personal and professional partnership; the answer to that question does arrive, just right before a literal fossilization of the lost myths and dreams of the past, a warning and a legacy for everyone of Reichardt’s outsiders. A laid-back, deeply-felt economic tale of a melding sense of joy and a lingering ache, First Cow finds mythic-like qualities in its cruel divisions while remaining vividly full of both life and a rich milieu.