First Cow, 121 minutes, A24, PG-13, 2020
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has earned a level of acclaim in independent film circles for relating minimalist stories about people on the periphery of society (usually set in the rural Pacific Northwest) with films like Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016). With her latest, First Cow, set in 1820 Oregon Country, she adds another small-scale masterpiece to her oeuvre.
First Cow tells the tale of two gentle souls, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), who find themselves in an otherwise rugged world populated by men who’ve come from far and wide (including the Eastern United States, Great Britain and Russia) to strike it big in the lucrative fur trade. Though this is no doubt a violent world, the camera often “averts its eyes” to instead capture scenes of sweetness and serenity. When a fight breaks out in a saloon, for example, and the combatants all tumble out into the street, the camera remains behind with Cookie and King-Lu, the only men left inside. They soon become close friends, their bond forming the heart of the picture.
The men move in together, and it is here, as platonic cohabitants of a tiny shack at the edge of civilization, they briefly find domestic bliss. Then comes an entrepreneurial breakthrough: After King-Lu, the more ambitious of the two, tastes one of Cookie’s delicious homemade biscuits, they go into business together and start selling baked goods at a nearby fort to men happy to line up and pay astronomical amounts for such treats. The duo’s scheme, however, involves pilfering milk (a scarce resource) from the territory’s first and only cow, which is owned by a wealthy Englishman named Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Even when things get tense, though, the film is able to gear back into a state of tranquility—much like that experienced as a warm, buttery pastry settles in one’s stomach.