Some are better than others, but I don’t think director Kelly Reichardt has made a bad movie. From her debut with the recently restored and reissued River of Grass, Old Joy, and her breakthrough Wendy and Lucy to the essential, fatalistic Meek’s Cutoff and her 2016 work Certain Women, Reichardt has trained her eyes on stories of self-reliant women and sensitive men, and each journey is patiently told and expertly realized (many of them also feature some of Michelle Williams’ finest work). Her latest, First Cow, is about the bond of male friendship, set in the Pacific Northwest sometime during the region’s Gold Rush in the early 1800s. It begins in the present, with the discovery of two skeletons—side by side, hardly buried in what barely qualifies as a shallow grave—by a woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog, so we know at least one thing for the entirety of the film: things are not going to end well for at least two of the characters.
The story proper involves a skilled cook nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro), who has tagged along with a small group of fur trappers in the Oregon Territory, but the trappers can’t stand Cookie and he has trouble locating and capturing decent food along their journey. On the trail, Cookie spots a naked Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee), who is running from Russian travelers, one of whom Lu may have killed, perhaps by accident. Cookie helps clothe and hide him, and eventually the two part only to be reunited in what passes for a large, burgeoning town. The two end up living together and beginning not only a business but an actual friendship.
A wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) takes possession of the town’s first cow, and Cookie sees an opportunity, so every night the he and Lu sneak over the property where the cow is staying and steal milk to make “oily cakes,” which look like fried dough and become so popular among the locals that they can’t keep up with demand and are able to charge more and more from day to day, eventually earning themselves a tidy nest egg that they want to eventually use to move to California and maybe open a hotel or eating establishment.
Like all of Reichardt’s films, the level of authenticity of both the location and the relationships are what sell the story and bring us deep into the tension that deepens with each new trip to visit the cow. We know they’re going to get caught; we are simply waiting to find out how. But beyond the production design, the filmmaker (working from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, who also wrote the screenplay) also has ideas about American entrepreneurial drive and how the idea of hitting on a million-dollar idea might drive someone to take chances they wouldn’t normally take. It’s a form of insanity, and we can see the feeling creep into the duo’s otherwise careful planning. Magaro and Lee balance each other with an uneasy care initially, but as they get closer and begin to see their dream life coming together with each new oil cake they make, they are overtaken by greed instead of playing it cautiously.
First Cow is shot primarily outdoors, but a sequence involving Cookie being hired by the land owner to make a particular dish from the UK is set in the town’s finest home. It feels like another planet to these two men, and almost seems to scare them off of their dreams momentarily, especially when the owner insists they take a walk with him to look at his prized cow. Still, at the center of the movie is this wonderful friendship that is tested but resilient, with an ending that is stark, uncompromising and beyond touching. Reichardt’s greatest gift will always be her ability to give her characters full and meaningful lives, to make us care about their fates and struggle alongside them. First Cow is built on such a foundation, and the result is completely satisfying and utterly unique in today’s cinematic landscape.
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