The journey that Cookie Figowitz (played by John Magaro) took to get to Oregon Territory in 1820 was clearly a difficult one. As Kelly Reichardt’s new film, First Cow, opens, he’s near the end of his trek, clambering over challenging terrain and dodging threats from his fur-trapping companions. By comparison, the voyage of the first cow to set foot in Oregon seems graceful: She enters the screen floating upriver on a raft, transported across the continent as an ostentatious display of wealth by a local trader attempting to force his old world into this new one. Reichardt’s movie is a quiet study of such incongruities—the story of a docile, domesticated creature entering the untamed wild, and an intimate friendship blossoming amid the cruelty of developing capitalism. It’s a small, understated movie, but it’s also one of the best of the year so far.
First Cow—co-written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, and loosely adapted from Raymond’s novel The Half-Life—has a touch of the caper genre and a sprinkling of buddy comedy. It also has all the hallmarks of Reichardt’s past work. Acclaimed by critics, the film is a profound examination of social hierarchies on a personal scale, a work that grapples with global themes in the silent pauses between conversations. The action plays out mostly in ramshackle hutches or thick vegetation, and Reichardt’s visual approach relies on her usual naturalism. She captures the beauty of the forest not via wide-angle vistas, but through a tight, square aspect ratio that makes the woodland feel overwhelming, almost impossible for any human to change.
Both Cookie and the cow have come west with the boom of “soft gold,” the beaver-fur industry that drove European interests all the way to the Pacific Northwest. While the cow is a purely ornamental possession of the reigning trading company’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones), Cookie’s journey is about the promise of a new, independent life. He befriends a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee), a fellow outsider in search of a future, and the two men quickly hit on a bizarre but simple business scheme. They steal the milk from the Chief Factor’s cow at night and use it to make donut-like treats that they dub “oily cakes”—and that soon catch the attention of the Chief Factor himself.
“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King tells Cookie wistfully, envisioning Oregon as a world where he can live outside the boundaries of social station and nationality. Yet the viewer knows that commerce is flooding in, and that the Chief Factor’s cow is the first milestone of many in a land that will be radically transformed. Cookie and King’s surreptitious milking of the cow can barely be called a crime, yet the Chief Factor’s status forbids it; the cow and her milk are his property. For all the mythos around the frontier as a land of opportunity, Oregon’s ranks of power are already so rigid that even Cookie and King’s humble dreams of entrepreneurship sound far-fetched.
Reichardt has long excelled at smuggling those kinds of provocative messages into such simple, spare narratives. Wendy and Lucy, a 2008 drama about a young homeless woman trying to make her way up to Alaska in search of work, uses a series of small obstacles to build up a crushing sense of futility, demonstrating how a seemingly minor inconvenience can amount to life or death for someone on the margins of society. Though First Cow lacks that film’s contemporary thrust, it has the same atmosphere of hopelessness for Cookie and King in the face of encroaching capitalism, mercilessly chugging down the Columbia River like a barge full of cattle.
Even so, Reichardt’s astonishing gift at managing tone ensures that First Cow never comes off as bleak or unrelentingly grim. Cookie and King’s connection is genuinely heartwarming. Reichardt depicts many of their misadventures (including a mission that involves making a clafoutis for the Chief Factor and his upper-crust guests) with a light comic touch, which turns riveting as the stakes get higher for the pair’s baking operation. First Cow is a masterwork of indie cinema—a tale that’s both charming and unsparing, suffused with equal measures of wonder and dread.