by Andrew Wyatt on Mar 17, 2020

The first word that come to mind when considering director Kelly Reichardt’s splendid new frontier drama First Cow is nice. It is a gentle, unhurried story about a pair of mostly decent people whose loftiest ambition is to carve out a modest niche touting life’s simple pleasures. This makes First Cow something of an outlier in Reichardt’s work. Even in the filmmaker’s more superficially placid films, an exhausting angst is always roiling beneath the surface, whether it concerns morality, relationships, or sheer physical survival. Although Reichardt’s arthouse breakout Old Joy (2006) has some similarities with First Cow – both films consider a male friendship against the backdrop of the lush Oregon wilderness – the director’s latest is a much warmer and sweeter work. Indeed, protagonists “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) might be a first in Reichardt’s filmography: two men whose bond is close, strong, and soothingly uncomplicated.

This isn’t to say that First Cow is completely free of conflict. In fact, the feature begins with a macabre discovery that looms like a shadow over everything that follows. In the present day, a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog stumble on a pair of skeletons buried in a shallow grave along the Snake River. The film then flashes back to 1820, where Cookie wanders the damp, dawn-kissed forests of (pre-statehood) Oregon in search of mushrooms. Currently employed as the cook for a party of hungry, hot-headed fur trappers, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Cookie would rather meander through the ferns in solitude than endure the teasing and threats from his churlish campmates. It’s on one of his regular searches for food that he first encounters King Lu, a well-traveled Chinese immigrant on the run from vengeful Russians after having killed one of their number in self-defense. Being a hopelessly kind-hearted soul, Cookie offers King Lu fresh clothes and a share of his meager rations, and then conceals the fugitive in the party's gear when they resume their journey to a nearby trading post.

King Lu eventually slips away, but sometime later the men bump into each other again at the trading post, after Cookie has claimed his pay and hastily parted ways with the trappers. The naturally outgoing and exceedingly grateful King Lu invites Cookie for a drink at the little house where he’s presently squatting, a one-room shack nestled deep enough in the woods to discourage unwanted attention. Without explicitly discussing it, the men quickly settle into a kind of serene domesticity. They build a chicken pen, fish in the river, mend clothing, and spruce up the tiny cabin as best they can. Even with the limited ingredients available to him, Cookie wows King Lu with his culinary skills, and the latter man – a starry-eyed self-starter who’s perpetually musing aloud about potential money-making opportunities – eventually hatches a plan. Seeing an untapped market in the far-flung trappers, prospectors, and travelers who converge on the nearby trading post, King Lu proposes that they sell Cookie’s baked goods to these men, offering a taste of home for a reasonable price.

There’s just one hitch: Good biscuits, cookies, and cakes demand fresh milk, and the men have no access to a cow. There is only one bovine in the territory, in fact, and it’s owned by the trading company’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones). And so the would-be entrepreneurs sneak onto the Factor’s property under cover of darkness, with King Lu acting as the lookout and Cookie extracting the milk while whispering soothing words to the cow. Once this milk source is secured, Cookie’s “oily-cakes” – fried balls of mildly sweet dough, slathered in honey – become a literal overnight sensation at the trading post. Soon Cookie and King Lu are accumulating a respectable nest egg cobbled together from the myriad currencies offered up by their customers: coins, ingots, shells, beads, and crumpled trading-company notes. In a thrilling and potentially perilous twist of fate, one of their most enthusiastic patrons is the Factor himself, who declares with hushed delight that he can “taste London” in Cookie’s fried treats. The Factor is so impressed, in fact, that he pays Cookie handsomely to prepare a clafoutis for a military officer’s upcoming visit to his homestead. Of course, the more that Cookie and King Lu ingratiate themselves with the Factor, the greater the risk that their midnight milk-pilfering will be discovered.

One of the primary delights of First Cow is its quiet, sensitive depiction of a harmonious male friendship, one lived at an unhurried tempo that befits the film’s frontier setting. Watching as Cookie and King Lu ease into their mellow side-by-side existence in the verdant Oregon wilds – without ever verbally negotiating the logistical or emotional contours of that relationship – is a life-affirming pleasure. Likewise, there’s something enviable and charming about the way that the men’s yin-and-yang personalities swirl together so smoothly, never giving rise to the sort of interpersonal conflict that is the typical basis for cinematic drama. King Lu’s restless ambition sometimes nudges Cookie to move quicker and take bigger chances, but the latter man never responds to his friend’s prodding with anything but his usual good-natured thoughtfulness.

Not that there is a dearth of drama in First Cow, whose plot makes it something of a heist film, albeit one that unfolds at a languid pace. In its final stretch, the feature eventually mutates into a tense wilderness thriller more in the mold of The Last of the Mohicans or Reichardt’s slow-burn Oregon Trail masterpiece, Meek’s Cutoff (2011). There’s also the matter of those twin skeletons, a worm-eaten assurance that the ending is already built into this tale – perhaps a tragic one, or perhaps not. Reichardt has always exhibited a virtuosic command of her stories’ emotional and thematic subtleties, but First Cow is her most tonally sophisticated film to date. The screenplay – co-written with the director’s longtime collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and loosely adapted from the latter’s 2004 novel, The Half-Life – elegantly blends its quirky buddy-picture premise with action, thriller, and black-comedy elements, not to mention the mud and gristle of a revisionist Western. Meanwhile, Reichardt regards the male-dominated world of the American frontier in a faintly cockeyed way that highlights its absurdity, recalling Jane Campion’s depiction of colonial New Zealand in The Piano (1993).

Striking this multi-layered tone is no easy feat, but it helps that Reichardt has two winning leads in Magaro and Lee, who are capable of conveying the strength of their characters’ friendship solely through the way they speak to one another. Despite their petty thievery, Cookie and King Lu are so eminently likable that one naturally wants them to succeed, to see them chase their agreeably eccentric dream of opening a combination hotel-bakery in San Francisco. However, First Cow does not unfold in Paddington’s London or Wes Anderson’s Zubrowka, places where sugar, cream, and politeness might stand a fighting chance against the world’s cruelty. This is America – Kelly Reichardt’s America – and as such there is a perpetual whiff of unease on the wind, a sense that any prosperity eked out by working stiffs is fleeting at best. Although King Lu’s tireless hustle and Cookie’s pride in his craft are portrayed as commendable traits, the possibility that their little enterprise will eventually collapse feels not just probable but inevitable. The deck is stacked in favor of men like the Factor, whose cavalier confidence in his own prosperity – as evidenced by his certainty that the local beaver population is infinite – is fostered by his wealth and privilege.

Indeed, First Cow emerges as Reichardt’s sharpest critique of capitalism’s rigged game since Wendy and Lucy (2008), her bleak and incisive portrayal of the brutal choices facing those on the margins of 21st-century America. Though it lacks the final, devastating gut-punch of her earlier film, First Cow is a more sensitive and complex consideration of the American experiment, one that acknowledges the crucial role that money plays in the dreams of the downtrodden. Reichardt and Raymond’s screenplay never chastises King Lu for his restive opportunism, for example, but it does carefully observe the way that those on the bottom can feel inexorably boxed in by wealth (and its absence), such that they might view its acquisition as their only way out. The fact that Jeff Bezos’ parents loaned him a quarter of a million dollars to get his “Amazon” idea rolling underlines the truism that King Lu and Cookie know all too well: In America, you need money to make money. Their nocturnal milking sorties are essentially a larcenous end-run around that entrepreneurial principal, and who can blame them? The Factor built his petty fiefdom on resource extraction, after all – pelts, land, and labor alike – and extracting from him in turn just feels like karma. Besides, it’s impossible to dislike Cookie and King Lu, their dairy thievery notwithstanding. They’re just so nice.

Rating: A-