“I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there is one that matters more than all the others. It is the trail of a true human being” — Kicking Bird in the film “Dances with Wolves”
Kelly Reichardt’s (“Certain Women”) First Cow is a song to nature, a tribute to intimacy and friendship, and a solid rebuke to Hollywood’s image of the gung-ho masculinity of the Old West. As the director laments, “The heroism of masculinity, white masculinity, it never dies. It just doesn’t die, that image in filmmaking always gets a roar of applause.” In First Cow, however, Reichardt quietly explores a male friendship that is built upon kindness and mutual acceptance and offers a vision of an American dream not yet corrupted by self-interest or exploitation.
Based on the 2004 novel “The Half-Life” by Jonathan Raymond (“Night Moves”) and adapted by Raymond and Reichardt, First Cow is set on the Oregon frontier sometime in the early 1800s. Shot in a boxy 4:3 ratio similar to the Westerns of the 1950s, the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt (“Meek’s Cutoff”) and a haunting score by William Tyler reveals the pristine beauty of the Oregon wilderness as well as the primitive conditions in which most trappers and explorers lived. At the beginning of the film, a quote from poet William Blake, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship” sets the tone as the opening shot introduces us to a barge slowly making its way down the Columbia River, which is where the story takes place.
In a brief prologue set in the present, a young woman (Alia Shawkat, “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town”), out walking with her dog, discovers a human skull partially buried in the dirt. Upon digging, she uncovers the skeletons of two men holding hands. Without further explanation, the scene then shifts to the beginning of the nineteenth century as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro, “Overlord”), a cook for a team of trappers at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post discovers King-Lu (Orion Lee, “Only You”), a Chinese immigrant hiding naked in the woods. After providing the fugitive with clothes and shelter, we learn that Cookie is from Maryland where his mother died when he was born, and his father died shortly after and he’s been on the road ever since.
King-Lu is from northern China and claims that he is running away from the Russians who are seeking to revenge the killing of one of their own. After some time has passed, the two men find each other again inside a bar at the trading post and develop a close, if unlikely friendship. When they witness the arrival of a cow with huge, soft eyes (the breakout star of the film) that belongs to wealthy landowner Chief Factor (Toby Jones, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”), King-Lu devises a scheme to secretly milk the cow late at night and use her milk to bake honey-covered biscuits which they market to the occupants of the settlement, starved for anything that reminds them of home. Chief Factor noticeably remarks when biting into one of the biscuits, “I taste London.”
The enterprise is successful and perhaps is reflective of the idea that a successful commercial venture in our society requires a certain degree of larceny. This notion is reinforced by King-Lu who proclaims that, “We have to take what we can when the taking is good.” His plan is to accumulate enough money to go to San Francisco and set up a business while Cookie dreams of opening a hotel for travelers and a bakery. When Cookie is persuaded by Chief Factor to bake a “Blueberry Clafoutis,” a special British desert to impress a visiting Captain (Scott Shepherd, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), Factor discovers that the dish requires milk and, in perfect Sherlock Holmes fashion, puts two and two together, sending Cookie and King-Lu on the run for safety.
Like most of Reichardt’s films, First Cow requires patience and a willingness to explore character development at the expense of a fast-paced narrative. While the film is not religious, the presence of spirit is felt in its journey among the rivers, the woods, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and in a narrative attentive to mankind’s need for friendship. In Reichardt’s 2006 film, “Old Joy,” one of the characters shares an old Chinese proverb that “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.” While our society is often permeated by the sense that our joy is wearing out and that we are in danger of losing our connection to other human beings, Reichardt’s sensitive and haunting film renews our understanding of the deep and abiding companionship we can still share with each other — in moments of beauty and tragedy,in an age that feels closer to the end than the beginning.