“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” a character says early on in First Cow. It’s a line that places Kelly Reichardt’s movie in a kind of primal American moment—if not quite at the birth of a nation then during its formative years, with people traveling from far and wide to immerse in the possibly purifying waters of an immense melting pot.
In terms of its early-19th-century dateline, First Cow is a Western, but its backdrop is far removed from the flatlands mythologized in the movies of John Ford. Like all of Reichardt’s features after her Florida-set debut River of Grass, First Cow takes place in the Pacific Northwest, rendered here by the director and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, as a verdant, overgrown forest straight out of a folktale, all tangled roots and secret hiding places. The Edenic greenery is interrupted only by a dingy, man-made encampment known as Fort Tillicum, whose inhabitants comprise a mix of imperialists, immigrants, and native residents. If the first two cohorts represent history’s ostensible arrival, the latter group understands, ruefully, that what’s being celebrated as a new beginning is also, in many ways, a tragic end.
It’s probably fair to say at this point that Reichardt is the most consistently politically conscious and sociologically astute American filmmaker of the post-’90s generation—a major artist in a minor key. Her films blend the empathetic activist ethos of her mentor and producer Todd Haynes with the regional specificity of the great John Sayles, whose 1996 thriller Lone Star gets unmistakably echoed in First Cow’s prologue. Here, a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in present-day Oregon discovers a pair of skeletons buried in the dirt, just as Lone Star opened on a civilian’s chance encounter with some old bones, amateur archaeology as a conduit to the past.
In Lone Star, Sayles’s strategy was to illuminate a larger metaphor about the skeletons in our collective cultural closet: The film was less a whodunnit than an excavation of the trauma of U.S.-Mexico relations. As First Cow unfolds in the morbid shadow of its cold open, it’s similarly less about the mystery of whom the bodies belong to—their identities become immediately apparent—than the film’s haunting, poetic engagement with the theme of history: who writes it, who gets lost, and what they leave behind. One of the components of Reichardt’s mastery is that she trusts the audience’s intelligence and attention span enough to craft a cinema of traces, of small things suggesting larger truths. Her low-budget, self-edited dramas are exemplars of indie engineering, but they’re also impossible structures, somehow bigger on the inside than on the outside. And so it is with the skeletons, serenely spooky heralds of a story whose modesty belies its life-or-death stakes.
“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship,” reads the opening title card of First Cow, the same William Blake quote that leads Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 source novel The Half-Life. Blake’s thesis is that solidarity is a naturally occurring phenomenon from which human beings make their home. This eloquent concept finds expression in Raymond and Reichardt’s fable in the form of the friendship between Otis, a.k.a. “Cookie” (John Magaro), a man who’s found employment preparing meals for a violent group of fur traders, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese traveler introduced fleeing from a different violent group of men—an outsider imperiled in his adopted homeland. Cookie’s choice to shield the stranger from his pursuers carries a degree of risk, and defines him, in tandem with his professional role as a cook, as a protective, even maternal presence; he stands several degrees away from the alpha-machismo widely recognized as a prerequisite to tame rough terrain. By contrast, King Lu is sly and enterprising, lacking a foothold in the new world but still driven by dreams of upward mobility.
These are the aspirations of a man for whom America represents a proverbial land of opportunity. They surface after he and Cookie become reacquainted at Fort Tillicum and fall in together first as roommates and later as business partners in a scheme that yokes their respective talents to a third party. That’d be—you guessed it—the cow of the film’s title, the first cow to appear in the region, and as such a status symbol flaunted by its owner the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), an avatar of stiff-lipped British authority determined to create a simulacrum of his native existence, which includes milk in his tea.
Where horses are synonymous with transport—conveyors for the fleet, rugged heroism of Western fact and fiction—a cow is a sweet, stationary creature whose benefits lie in biological by-products. Because Reichardt is a subtle filmmaker, she doesn’t overstate, in image or dialogue, the cow’s symbolic function as a fulcrum of civilization, but she doesn’t have to, because Raymond’s simple, ingenious plotline folds it directly into the action. Having decided to try to make some money using Cookie’s baking skills, our heroic pair hit upon the idea of clandestinely milking the Chief Factor’s prized pet to distinguish their wares from the gritty tastelessness of most frontier food. The risks are real, but outstripped by the potential reward. Besides, what could be more cathartic for guys living hand to mouth than siphoning their ingredients straight from the teat of the ruling class?
There is a level on which First Cow is a comedy—and a very funny one—about the perils and pitfalls of being a small-business startup. Once news of Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” spreads through the settlement, he and King Lu become minor celebrities, leveraging their precious, tenuous supply against a growing demand fueled by expatriate nostalgia (“I taste London in this cake,” exclaims a satisfied customer). A pushier movie would draw out the capitalist implications of the story line, but again, Reichardt leaves the subtext below the surface, where it belongs, while torquing the story’s tension through keen observation of its characters. The same thing that makes Cookie and King Lu such an endearing duo—their mutual respect filtered through essentially different worldviews—is also what puts them in danger. King Lu’s desire for a big score overwhelms Cookie’s natural reluctance. “It’s dangerous,” Cookie says, sounding a note of caution. “So is anything worth doing,” King Lu replies with a smile.
As in her criminally underrated 2013 ecoterrorist psychodrama Night Moves—host to Jesse Eisenberg’s best-ever performance as an activist hollowed out by his guilt over the collateral damage of a dam-bombing gone awry—Reichardt is more expert at turning the screws of suspense than her reputation as a gentle indie-cinema miniaturist suggests. Tension is one of her great strengths as a filmmaker, less as a result of any Hitchcockian directorial pyrotechnics than because she brings us close enough to her characters that their thoughts and fears become transparent even when the situation demands that they keep up appearances. In one key scene based around Cookie’s preparation and presentation of a traditional British pastry, comedy and anxiety meld together on a molecular level.
Magaro, who was superb as a wannabe ’60s garage-rocker in David Chase’s feature debut Not Fade Away, is exactly the kind of actor who thrives under Reichardt’s gaze. He’s got the same gentle, unprepossessing masculinity as the leads of her 2006 buddy-movie masterpiece Old Joy, which would make for a great double bill about the wages of loyalty. Lee, meanwhile, is a revelation, leaning into his statuesque handsomeness to make King Lu a dashing, dynamic figure, albeit one whose charisma is tempered by tenderness. First Cow’s setting makes the issue of race inescapable, and it’s implicit in Raymond’s script that King Lu’s “otherness” plays both ways in his situation: It makes him a target as well as a source of exotic fascination. In this context, the quiet, watchful presence of several Chinook Native American characters, including the Factor’s wife (Lily Gladstone), keeps First Cow attentive to matters of ethnic as well as economic marginality. These are things Reichardt has always been interested in, a motif she developed in Meek’s Cutoff, where a group of wagon-trainers are forced to put their faith behind their captive indigenous guide, as well as Certain Women, with its futile, heartbreaking friendship-slash-unrequited-love-affair between Gladstone’s smitten farmhand and Kristen Stewart’s oblivious city girl.
There are moments when First Cow feels overdrawn, as if Reichardt’s innate sense of pacing had gotten slightly off beat. When she’s at her best, time dissolves so that slowness becomes a virtue, but for viewers not attuned to her rhythms, First Cow’s ambling progression could be a liability. At the same time, the slow, horizontal drift of the camera yields its own form of visual pleasure. In interviews, Reichardt has cited a series of mid-20th-century Japanese movies like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu as inspiration; seeing the ghostly, grayscale sense of place in those movies transplanted from East to West is fascinating. The other outstanding technical element here is former Silver Jews guitarist William Tyler’s musical score, which is lush and coruscating in ways that recall Neil Young’s work for Dead Man, with less squall and feedback but a similarly soulful, eerie undertow.
In Reichardt’s Old Joy, a drifter played by another indie-rock stalwart, Will Oldham, expounds upon the idea that the universe is “shaped like a falling tear,” an image that has hovered over her work ever since. And yet even when her films are sad—a word that applies to First Cow as surely as it does to Old Joy’s Big Chill–ish sketch of fraying friendship or the tear-jerking girl-and-her-dog love story Wendy and Lucy—they’re not sentimental. Just because she’s a realist doesn’t mean she’s a sap. If anything, the collision between optimism and cynicism, or maybe idealism and realism, is at the core of First Cow, which understands the necessity of their coexistence, whether fully entwined or quietly side by side. As a movie that posits genuine, self-sacrificing friendship as the apex of humanity—as well as a survival technique in a world ruled by dog-eat-dog impulses—First Cow is moving and sincere. The hell of it is that Reichardt recognizes that no less than the spider’s web, loyalty and devotion can become a trap. That her beautifully made film delves into such complexities distinguishes it from the majority of movies being made today; that it does so with such effortless command is why it stands alone.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.