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.