Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.
First Cow follows the exploits of two men who meet by accident in the Oregon Territory and together hatch a scheme to earn enough money to travel to “Saint Francisco,” where they hope to open a hotel and bakery. When we first meet the gentle, beleaguered Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), he’s serving as cook to a band of rough, fractious trappers, men with whom he has nothing in common. The trappers regularly get into fights with one another and insult and threaten Figowitz, who seems most comfortable away from their camp, foraging for mushrooms, finding lizards and squirrels, and catching fish. Figowitz’s isolation ends abruptly when, one night, he happens upon a hungry, naked man hiding in the outskirts of the trappers’ encampment. The man, we learn, is King-Lu (Orion Lee), an adventurer who explains that he is on the run from vengeful pursuers. Not all of the elements of King-Lu’s story add up, but the empathetic Figowitz nevertheless fetches a blanket for King-Lu, and a friendship begins.
The lovely Oregon forest in autumn is the backdrop for hunger, desperation, hope, and the foolish grappling of greedy and violent men. Figowitz and King-Lu mostly keep to themselves, observing the world around them, conversing quietly, commiserating about their poverty, and sharing their histories and philosophies with one another. The film’s Indigenous characters, too, mostly look on and keep their peace, watching the sometimes bizarre and unaccountable behavior of the settlers, as when white men float the first cow in the Oregon Territory down a river near the encampment, en route to the farm of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), the area’s English overseer. The arrival of the cow inspires Figowitz and King-Lu with an idea that will change their lives forever: If they steal the cow’s milk under cover of darkness, Figowitz can bake with it and sell what he makes. This they proceed to do, and soon they have a booming business, returning to the cow by night and selling “secret ingredient” cakes by day. They are close to earning enough to move to San Francisco when a run-in with Chief Factor raises the stakes considerably, and the men must decide how many risks they’re willing to take in pursuit of their American dream.
Reichardt does her usual marvelous job detailing the myriad ways that chance, class, race, gender, personality, geography, and the American brand of capitalism intersect to create painful barriers to the achievement of even modest ambitions for ordinary people. Figowitz and King-Lu are enormously sympathetic protagonists, enmeshed in a web of obstacles and opportunity, and we feel for their losses and cheer their victories. Had the restrictions and punishments of American capitalism, racism, and patriarchy been any less cruel, their ordinary flaws and missteps might have been less damning. But that is what makes their story so fraught, so tense, and so engrossing: The tiniest mistake could be their undoing at any moment. Both men are too trusting: Figowitz of his sharp-minded, charismatic companion, and King-Lu of his own wits and savvy. But their sweet, genuine friendship enlivens their days together, and their hopes for a better life are so compelling that we hope fate and Chief Factor will forgive them their trespasses and allow them to flourish, as two decent, industrious, and kind-hearted people ought to be able to do, if life and America were fair.
Reichardt and Raymond’s story finds full expression through the beautiful cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt, another longtime Reichardt collaborator. The choice of Academy ratio for this film intensifies the film’s gaze, hemming in our view of the characters’ circumscribed lives and tightly focusing our attention on the details of their world in the same way it did in Meek’s Cutoff. William Tyler’s score is similarly small, spare, and evocative, and it highlights both the loneliness and the poetry of the film’s visual world. The fine performances of the lead actors, too, are a study in minimalism and suggestiveness. John Magaro’s quiet Figowitz is watchful and thoughtful, alternately a coiled spring of tension and an open-hearted friend to Orion Lee’s King-Lu. Lee’s performance is a real standout here: His King-Lu has great charm, the gift of gab, a clever mind, and a go-go entrepreneurial spirit that catches us up even as we suspect his judgment shouldn’t be trusted as wholly as Figowitz trusts it. This film never makes a wrong step, and we never regret going with it all the way to the end of the line.
First Cow is streaming on Amazon and is scheduled for a DVD/Blu-ray release on September 8.