Chances are if you’re not already a fan of the deliberately-paced dramas of Kelly Reichardt, First Cow isn’t on your radar. But it should be, as Reichardt brings her favorite cinematic themes to bear in another striking portrait of the Pacific Northwest, set in the wild untamed frontiers of the early 19th-century, where “history hasn’t gotten here yet” as one person so profoundly states early on. It’s an America bursting at the seams with opportunity, and where friendships can still be tested by greed, racism, class, and desperation for an American Dream barely in its infancy.
And yes, there is a cow.
“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship,” William Blake’s quote opens First Cow, heralding a tale of man’s natural need for companionship and comfort. But that comfort, while fulfilling, is also a tenuous thing. The film opens, ominously, in the present as a young woman (Alia Shawkat, in a small cameo) and her dog (No, it’s not a Wendy and Lucy spinoff) discover a pair of skeletons buried in the dirt. It’s an opening that harkens back to John Sayles’ Lone Star, and like that film is not the start of an epic mystery, but as a doorway into history.
It’s never a question who the bones belong to, but the answer as to how they got there is ripe with twists, turns, and Reichardt’s ongoing commentary about man’s treatment of one another and to nature. The excellent John Magaro plays Cookie, who has the unenviable task of being cook to a traveling band of fur traders. In this wide-open expanse, finding vittles can be a tough job and only a few are good at it. For all his struggles, Cookie is one of those few. His soft-spoken, kind-hearted demeanor is not only at odds with them, but with the harshness of the frontier. He quickly befriends Chinese ex-pat King Lu (terrific newcomer Orion Lee), on the run from Russians for a crime we suspect has more to do with his ethnicity than any true offense.
Cookie helps King Lu out of a jam, and sometime later are reunited in very different situations. The bond they formed does remain, almost like no time has passed at all. While Cookie seems somewhat aimless, King Lu has greater ambitions. Together, they conspire to steal precious milk from the only cow in the entire area, belonging to a wealthy landowner (played with gusto by Toby Jones), and bake delicious oily cakes for the weary locals. Delicacies are hard to come by, and the cakes are a huge hit, but at what price comes success?
It’s impossible to shake the similarities to Reichardt’s early film, Old Joy, and its exploration of male friendship and masculinity in a pair of reconnected friends. While First Cow travels the path of a new friendship, it touches on a similar theme. Both films parallel in the way each man connects with nature. Some of the best moments in First Cow are simply of Cookie foraging in the lush, overrun forests, or of both men simply exploring the world around them. As if echoing the call-to-emergency of her eco-terrorism thriller Night Moves, Reichardt drives home that man’s excesses will destroy its bond with the environment. The fur trappers Cookie works for are prevalent, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem they all need to survive.
This is also a parable about the dangers of capitalism. If built on empathy and simple need, all can see benefit, but it can easily slip into selfishness and greed. For some, achieving the American Dream is impossible without breaking the rules, and in such a lawless place that can prove deadly. Cookie is content to have a skill that he can use to make something people want, but King Lu sees greater potential. There can never be enough, and no matter how much they sell, no matter how much money they make, there can always be more. It’s clear from the start Cookie and King Lu are not meant for this place. Cookie would be right at home in Boston, where he learned his trade, while King Lu often talks about moving their business to San Francisco where his kind are better treated. That dream is always close at hand, and yet also just out-of-reach.
Reichardt’s deliberate (read: slow) pacing remains, and First Cow does move at the speed of its bovine co-star. This is also one of the richest, most engrossing films she has made so far. Maybe it’s me, but I find Reichardt best when there’s a thrust of action, especially criminal action, for her to contemplate, as in with Night Moves. Although the movie’s conclusion is never in question, First Cow remains tense and thrilling throughout Cookie and King Lu’s illicit schemes. It’s because we know, whatever hardships befall them, they’ll see one another through all the way to the grave.