Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 12th, 2020
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
Within a verdant landscape of untamed forest walk lonely souls in search of connection, whether they recognize the need or not. Though loners some of us may profess to be, we still yearn for contact, however fleeting; it’s the stuff of which meaningful lives are made. Such is the thrust of the William Blake quote – taken from his 1790 “Proverbs of Hell” – that opens Kelly Reichardt’s quietly powerful new meditation on the human condition, First Cow: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Homo sapiens survives through relationships; for the great toolmaker, it is the greatest tool of all.
We begin in present day, with a young woman (Alia Shawkat, Blaze) walking her dog, who unearths two skeletons on the banks of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River. Whoever the bones belonged to, they died in each other’s arms, and the rest of the film will explore the how and the why not just of the demise, but of the embrace. From there, we flash back to the 1830s, where Cookie (John Magaro, Overlord) is part of a fur-trapping expedition on which he is the cook (hence his moniker). A shy sort, he is treated poorly by his companions, so it is no surprise when his first instinct upon discovering a naked man on the run in the woods at night is to help, rather than capture. That fellow outcast is King-Lu (Orion Lee, MLE), a Chinese adventurer with a philosophical bent and entrepreneurial flair. The two soon form a close bond that leads to both great reward and high risk.
Reichardt (Certain Women) is a master cinematic tactician, the subtlety of her mise-en-scène masking deep, metaphysical explorations of our place in the world. Based loosely on Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half Life, First Cow follows Cookie and King-Lu as they set up culinary shop to offer the trappers and other residents of the frontier outpost they make home something beyond hardtack and slop. Unfortunately, the only way to prepare Cookie’s delicious biscuits is with milk, and the only cow in the area belongs to the trading company’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones, Atomic Blonde), the de facto regional ruler. Even as their plan to secretly steal what they need at night seems to work, they worry that the growing popularity of their product will lead to exposure, especially once the Chief takes an especial interest in the “oily cakes” (as they call them). They need just enough money to feel comfortable leaving for other parts. Will they stop in time?
That first sequence provides the answer, so the interest is in seeing how we get there, the narrative buoyed by the great performances of the two leads. Beautifully photographed by Reichardt’s longtime collaborator Christopher Blauvelt (this is their fourth film together, starting with the 2010 Meek’s Cutoff), whose nighttime imagery is as dark as one can get while still revealing important detail (amazing to see), the film is a wonder of visual simplicity where everyone’s true nature is revealed in exquisite close-up. The music, by William Tyler (played on guitar and dulcimer), provides gentle background to the evocative natural soundscape in which Cookie and King-Lu make their dangerous way. “History hasn’t arrived yet,” says the latter as he marvels at the treasures of the new world. It will soon, for him and for us, and watching it unfold is a glorious thing.