The director Kelly Reichardt edits her own films, and her rhythms at the start of her 19th-century frontier drama, First Cow, are idiosyncratic if not inscrutable. You can’t predict when she’ll cut away or where she’ll linger … or dawdle, depending on your patience for longueurs. You might find your mind wandering … until she jolts you awake with a revelation, a flash of connection between two souls, or the first stirrings of dread. That’s when you feel most alive — when you find her wavelength, and the inscrutable is suddenly crystalline.
Again, that can take a while. The opening of First Cow is loose bordering on limp, the aura of drift a depressant. In a prologue, a woman (Alia Shawkat) with a dog uncovers a pair of human skeletons, after which the film appears to jump back in time. (There are no explanatory titles.) The mild-mannered protagonist, “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), works as a cook for a band of surly trappers in the Pacific Northwest; his most tender moments are spent gathering wild mushrooms (chanterelles, I think, but don’t take my word for it — or ever let me be your wild-mushroom guide). Cookie has no roots, no ties to the material world. He’s barely there — until he does a good turn for a naked Chinese man on the run from vengeful Russians and a bond begins to form, tentatively but with increasing firmness. When the enterprising King Lu (Orion Lee) concocts a plan to extract (i.e., steal) milk every night from the region’s lone bovine, you may finally glimpse a narrative path forward. For Reichardt, it takes two to get a rhythm going.
And two might be all you need. Co-written by Jonathan Raymond (the script based loosely on his novel The Half-Life), First Cow opens with a line from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The bird, a nest, the spider, a web, man friendship.” A startling assertion, that home isn’t a place or thing but a connection to someone not you. (Sartre’s “Hell is other people” can be regarded as a related — not opposing — contention.) Blake’s conception of home applies to the major characters in all of Reichardt’s films, nomads for whom alienation is a baseline state and alliance (with a person or, in Wendy and Lucy, a dog) the only means of attaining a sense of permanence. The prospect of losing a friendship triggers existential dread in Reichardt’s first feature, Old Joy (also based on a story by Raymond), while the anti-hero of the eco-thriller Night Moves defends the Earth at the expense of human ties and ends up (along with everyone else) in hell.
You can infer from Reichardt’s films that capitalism divides (and conquers) more reliably than it unites, although the theme isn’t spelled out. (Nothing is spelled out.) What you register in the frontier town of First Cow is what’s absent: a sense of community, of a shared enterprise. (Reichardt evokes Robert Altman’s Pacific Northwest–set masterpiece, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with shots of the late René Auberjonois scrutinizing the action from the window of a ramshackle hut, the quotation from one of Auberjonois’s first films in one of his last both eerie and poignant.) We register filth, poverty, and competition for dwindling natural resources, overseen from the manse of an Englishman (Toby Jones) going by the name Chief Factor. (He seems to have created a Native American Raj — a pun?) At the town market, Cookie and King Lu gaze along with other merchants on the arrival by boat of Chief Factor’s latest acquisition, the title character. Now, one man has dairy and the rest don’t. It’s King Lu — the immigrant whose eyes are always on the main chance, whose brain teems with get-rich-quick schemes — who recognizes that men subsisting miserably on biscuits made from flour and water (hardtack) will go nuts for something moist and tender. By night, he and Cookie sneak onto Chief Factor’s property and milk his cow; by day, townspeople line up and throw money at them for more of their doughnutlike “oily cakes.” King Lu exploits their racism for his own ends: The source of the cakes’ deliciousness is an “ancient Chinese secret.”
It’s exhilarating to watch the pair of outcasts make gobs of money, plan an opulent future in San Francisco, and share intimate details of their lives — so exhilarating that you don’t want to think about what could happen to them if they’re caught. In a cold, harsh, unjust society, a bond like theirs is surely worth the risk. The two actors are criminally endearing. Magaro’s Cookie is socially stunted but large-souled and very sweet, looking addled even before he’s actually concussed. Lee is almost too movie-star handsome to be credible, but it’s fun to watch him maintain his supernatural poise while being condescended to by drooling white gits. Only the writing lets him down: Once the scheme is at full throttle, King Lu doesn’t have much to do except repeat capitalist mantras, going for the mother lode when he ought to be gearing up to skedaddle. The abrupt finish leaves you saying, “What … ?” And then, “Oh. Right. Right. Oh.”
First Cow is deceptively spare: It’s shot by Christopher Blauvelt in his and Reichardt’s customary boxy ratio, which concentrates the image and keeps your eyes from straying to far-off corners (there aren’t any), while the composer, William Tyler, seems not to be scoring the action so much as gently, sadly musing on it with banjo and harp. (Tyler’s country albums are much more busily orchestrated.) The effect is just so. You’re left sad but happy. But very sad. But happy, after all, when you think about Blake and what a life without friendship could be. This haunting movie transports you to another world — and redefines home.
*A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!