Westerns and ominous silence have always gone hand-in-hand, from terse showdowns conducted entirely through pointed stares and trembling hands rested on guns to the vast emptiness of the American plains, but very few directors have as strong a grasp on the peace that this quietness brings as Kelly Reichardt does. Her magical new film, First Cow, transports us to 1820s Oregon and basks in the hush of a country not quite tamed, even as the inexorable forces of colonists and capitalists move in to strip the land of its wealth and beauty.
We open in the present day, seeing freight traveling through Oregon on thundering trains and enormous ships, as a dog walker (a nice little cameo for Alia Shawkat) stumbles upon two skeletons who appear to have died while holding hands. From here, we’re gently flung back into the past, where we meet Cookie (John Magaro), a camp cook at the tail end of a fur trapping mission in the Pacific Northwest. Foraging one night in the woods, Cookie runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), an entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant on the run from Russian hunters, and feeds and clothes him, laying the foundations of a beautiful friendship and business partnership.
A skilled baker, Cookie works out that he can cook delicious ‘oily cakes’ (a sort of prototypical doughnut) if he can access the milk of the titular first cow in the territory, belonging to a pompous British aristocrat known only as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). King Lu spies a possible fortune – all the other food on the frontier is rather grim – and so the pair set about stealing the milk they need under cover of night to have a thriving business by day. Adapting the novel The Half-Life (by her regular screenwriting partner Jon Raymond), Reichardt gets through this story incredibly gracefully, perfectly balancing the plot’s machinations with the budding platonic love between Cookie and King Lu.
Their friendship is a profoundly moving one, built on circumstance and opportunity but also one genuine kindness and connection, two outsiders who find safety and companionship in one another. Magaro and Lee have an easygoing chemistry, and you could watch the pair of them just fish and make plans for hours on end, which makes the possible pitfalls of their scheme all the more gripping. You’re so invested in them, their relationship, and even their business, that even the most languorous stretches will have you catching your breath, all building to a deeply satisfying ending that both respects its characters and trusts its audience.
This is helped by some gorgeous camerawork, shot in a tight 4:3 aspect ratio that is intimate until it’s oppressive. Reichardt’s take on the natural world here sits somewhere between the angelic magic of a Malick film and the outright brutality of something like The Revenant; there’s plenty of life and light to be found in every shot, but a biting chill is always just around the corner.
While Cookie and King Lu are the undisputed stars of the show, Reichardt builds her world with a fabulous supporting cast, many of whom make an enormous impact with almost no dialogue at all. From an androgynous sharpshooter to a bespectacled bully living in the fort near Cookie and King Lu’s cottage, these faces pop up over and over, giving a sense of a real ecosystem at play, one that you feel would carry on even if the cameras weren’t rolling. And of the cow, the title star who is so integral to the plot? Well, she is quite simply a delight, with soulful, curious eyes and an adorably polite manner, and the scenes in which Cookie bonds with her during the milking sessions are just lovely.
Every little detail in First Cow has been expertly placed, and the cumulative effect is a subtly awing power, one that draws you into this world with beauty and grace (not to mention a divine score from William Tyler) without losing a biting commentary on how white, capitalist entitlement serves little purpose other than to make the world an uglier place. It’s a vital snapshot of history, served through the kind of tiny, personal story that often gets lost in the grander American myth-making about the Old West.