“History hasn’t gotten here yet.” So says King-Lu (Orion Lee) to his friend Cookie (John Magaro), taking in their Oregon frontier surroundings. Although the Pacific Northwest had been occupied for a few hundred years before settlers arrived, the grueling rough-and-tumble colonies formed there in the early 1800s were still years from “proper” statehood.
The two men at the center of Kelly Reichardt’s heartwarming buddy film First Cow glean an entire day’s worth of joy from any small kindness — a fresh biscuit, a warm fire, and eventually, each other’s companionship.
Many elements of First Cow feel like a series of references to Reichardt’s earlier work — the frontier setting of Meek’s Cutoff, the close male friendship from Old Joy, and even a scene of a woman and her dog that echoes Wendy and Lucy.
But the most important trademark that the director brings to her latest feature is a continued exploration of Americans at the fringes of society, and the bonds that sustain them in the meantime. First Cow feels like the most reflective of those efforts, exploring unlikely kinship and American greed in a place that was still figuring out exactly what it was supposed to be.
The film is loosely based on frequent Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel Half-Life, which weaves together parallel frontier and modern-day stories over a sprawling 200-year period.
Here, the only remnant of the modern plotline is a brief prologue, in which a woman (a fleeting Alia Shawkat cameo) walking through the woods uncovers two skeletons —presumably the remains of Cookie and King-Lu — lying side by side.
Rather than melodramatically foreshadowing their deaths, Reichardt is much more interested in using this reveal as a jumping-off point for her dual protagonists.
We then flashback to 1820, when Cookie and King-Lu first encounter one another on their way to a desolate trading post. Cookie (Joe Magaro) is working for a group of virile fur trappers, who often use the soft-spoken cook as an easy punching bag. One night, he comes across King-Lu, squatting alone in the woods. The stranger reveals that he’s a Chinese sailor, on the run from a group of Russians and desperately hungry.
Cookie chooses to help King-Lu rather than turn him in, establishing a connection between the two men that blossoms when they’re reunited a short time later. Reichardt reunited with the DP of her previous frontier film Meek’s Cutoff, once again choosing to shoot in boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than reveling in panoramas of Oregon’s vast forests. Here, though, the cinematography’s tight focus on its main characters makes their relief at finding an ally palpable. Although both men are outsiders — Cookie for his atypically gentle personality, and King-Lu as a foreigner — they share dreams of idyllic lives, far removed from the grueling monotony of pioneer life.
When a new milking cow is imported for the colony’s wealthy English chief Colonel Factor (Toby Jones), Cookie and King-Lu hatch a business scheme to scrounge up extra cash — Cookie will make “oily bread” from the cow’s milk by night, while King-Lu sells it to settlers by day.
As almost no food in the area is available outside of hunting and foraging, the pair’s venture turns them into overnight celebrities at the trading post. Hunger is a great equalizer, and the chance to taste anything home-cooked reduces the hardiest of frontiersmen into children lingering at the table before dinner.
Cookie and King-Lu’s leisurely ruse is thrown into disarray when Colonel Factor commissions them for baked goods, completely unaware that they’ve been stealing from right under his nose.
Under a less inventive director, the pared-down narrative of First Cow could’ve easily turned the film into a dull fable. And it’s true that one’s enjoyment of Reichardt’s 1820 reimagining will likely be dependent on how much they buy into her simplistic world-building — women are nearly absent, and Native American characters (namely Lily Gladstone as Factor’s wife) are sparsely featured given the setting (apart from a dreamlike third act in which the main characters are pursued through the forest).
If First Cow’s focus is narrow, it’s because of the rapt attention given to a male friendship whose tenderness is sometimes hard to imagine in the present day. Some of the loveliest moments are almost Thoreauvian, as Cookie lovingly whispers affirmations in a cow’s ear, or gathers a bouquet of wildflowers to christen King-Lu’s new cabin.
Add in a few long gazes, and the film almost has the makings of a homoerotic Western. But there’s something oddly comforting about the fact that, as seeds of hyper-masculinity and capitalist greed are planted in the early America of First Cow, the pair’s devotion to one another is just as present and steadily growing.
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