The present means everything to us, because sometimes it appears to be all we’ve got. But Kelly Reichardt’s extraordinary First Cow puts us squarely in a place, an era and a mode of being that might otherwise seem gauzy: The Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, a sylvan wilderness overrun with rough-mannered trappers in search of “soft gold,” or valuable pelts, a place where comforts are few and decent vittles are scarcer. It’s there and then that First Cow is set. The title refers to a creature of almost impossible beauty and rarity: She’s the first cow to be brought to the territory, and she’s the spark for a story of love and friendship between two men, one a Chinese immigrant who has come to America to seek his fortune, the other a trained baker who’s stuck rustling up improvised meals for the dirty, ungrateful trappers he works for. What this cow hath joined let no man tear asunder.
First Cow—based on a novel by Reichardt’s frequent writing collaborator Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the script with her—is a work of great beauty, a vision of a younger, more hardscrabble America that’s both historical and mythological. It’s a reminder that all Americans have today was stolen, not borrowed, from those who lived on this land long before white people knew it existed: The ugly behavior of those forebears is the foundation of prosperity today. And yet, even as the opportunistic creatures we are, humans can’t help striving for kindness and connection. That’s the optimism at the heart of First Cow, a picture that’s both tranquil and dazzling, two qualities that should be at odds with one another yet somehow bloom in tandem under Reichardt’s gentle touch.
The first cow in First Cow doesn’t have a name, but boy, does she have class. She’s the property of a rich landowner, played by Toby Jones, who has had her brought over on a barge—we see her sailing in through a tree-lined river, placid and regal, as if she had stepped directly from a Constable painting straight into the U.S. of A. Her bull and her calf began the journey with her, but didn’t make it, a natural tragedy that only intensifies her sorrowful majesty. By the time we’ve made her acquaintance, we’ve already met the story’s two lead characters, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a gentle misfit in a land of ruffians, and King Lu (Orion Lee), who’s on the run from a bunch of angry Russian trappers. Cookie, while foraging in the woods for mushrooms, comes upon King Lu hiding, naked, in a bush, having shed all his clothes to elude capture. He’s very hungry. Cookie feeds him and gives him temporary shelter. The two are separated for a time, but reunite in the midst of a frontier barroom brawl. King Lu is happy to reconnect with his kind friend, and invites him over to his house for a drink.
The house is a little shack on the outskirts of town. Cookie steps through the door and never leaves: While King Lu takes care of chopping wood and other assorted outdoor chores, Cookie gets busy inside, sweeping the dirt floors and setting a few tree sprigs in an old bottle. King Lu takes one look and says, “It looks better already.” One evening the two discover the cow, grazing on the land next to their little spread. Cookie milks her in the moonlight, while King Lu, the lookout, perches in a nearby tree. Before Cookie procures even a drop of the cow’s precious milk—you could call it white gold—he strokes her flank gently and says, “I’m sorry about your husband.” She fixes him with one brown eye, wise enough to accept kindness when it’s given.
As a gifted baker, Cookie knows just what to do with that milk, and King Lu knows how to make money off the results. Together, they form a business—albeit one built on stolen ingredients—and as they count and save the dough they make, they share their dreams for the future. Cookie would like to open a hotel. King Lu considers possible locations: nearby, where there’s no competition, or down in bustling San Francisco? Lee and Magaro are wonderful together, as characters united first out of practicality and then by mutual affection. The story their faces tell is one of entrepreneurship and compatibility, of love and theft.
“Without tenderness, a man is uninteresting,” Marlene Dietrich said, and First Cow is, among other things, a reflection on masculine tenderness. It’s also a study of humankind’s relationship to the natural world—to cows, to trees, to water and dirt—and the extent to which civilization can both stress nature and provide relief from it. And it’s about people making their way in a challenging landscape, in some ways not unlike the intrepid crew in Reichardt’s 2010 pioneer mini-epic Meek’s Cutoff, the story of settlers making their way across the unforgiving landscape of 1840s Oregon.
But First Cow is dreamier than that film, while also being suitably earthbound: It’s in tune with both the grayish-brown vitality of the soil and the cloud-whisked texture of the sky—cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt captures the majesty of each. Visually and spiritually, it’s in a league with other great, sturdily poetic dream visions of the frontier, like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller—it can’t be an accident that Gary Farmer (from Dead Man) and the late Rene Auberjonois (from McCabe), two marvelous actors, have small but potent roles in this film. Yet there’s nothing nostalgic about First Cow; its vitality makes it modern. The film opens in the present day, in the same landscape where King Lu and Cookie first found each other. With its waving trees and verdant riverbanks, the land looks roughly the same as it must have looked to them. Of course, we know nothing is the same. We human beings have made our ugly marks all over the natural world. Still, the land is the thread that connects us to the past—to everything we did and everything we failed to do, but also to the people, in another lifetime, we loved.