When a country is in its infancy, it has possibilities. Its people shape its character, and it is unclear whether that character will be tolerant or cruel. First Cow, the remarkable new film from Kelly Reichardt, is about the United States at a crossroads. The film is highly allegorical – a metaphor for the inherent faults of capitalism – and achingly specific. An unlikely friendship defines this film, one between two men who do not meet the frontier’s traditional definition of masculinity. Their affection creates genuine warmth and optimism, without once veering toward sentiment. Those notes are necessary, since the story outside their friendship is downright pitiless.
Reichardt is known for her gentle pace and infrequent editing. She wants her audience to observe, even linger, over each image and situation. That patience is important when she introduces Cookie (John Magaro). He is a quiet man, thoughtfully collecting mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest so he can feed a group of travelers. Compared to him, these travelers are brutes: angry, mean, and prone to violence. We get the impression Cookie has dealt with men like this his entire life, but he has never met anyone quite like King Lu (Orion Lee). King Lu is a Chinese immigrant who speaks fluent English, and even though he is naked when Cookie stumbled upon him, he is not afraid. Through dumb luck, the pair become inseparable.
At the screening I attended, Reichardt described First Cow as a “heist film.” Her remark is a partially a joke, yet there are parts of the film with genuine suspense. Her and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond supply Cookie and King Lu with an unlikely scheme: they milk a cow at night, then use that milk to sell baked goods to a nearby settlement. The cow does not belong to them, but King Lu figures there’s no harm in taking a little milk every night. This leads to some strange coincidences, and the suspense is whether King Lu and Cookie can make enough money before the cow’s owner figures it out. Some stretches of dialogue unfold like an economics lesson, with the newfound entrepreneurs reasoning their way through supply and demand.
Most film set during the Westward Expansion do not have characters like Cookie or King Lu. The point of First Cow is that they must have been there all along, next to the typical with heroes, scoundrels, innocents, and other familiar archetypes. Cookie is not timid, but he is inward and withdrawn. King Lu probably exploited Cookie’s kindness, at least in the beginning, but through their talk they find they like each other. The dialogue is spare, with each turn of phrase carrying multiple meanings. Routine and behavior interest Reichardt on a far deeper level. When they become roommates, the arrangement is wordless. Thanks to Reichardt’s deliberate cinematography and gorgeous score by guitarist William Tyler, this arrangement is nearly idyllic.
It is everyone else that is the problem. Sure, Cookie manages to escape the men from his early travels, but the others are not much of an improvement. Most of First Cow centers on a fort, one where there is trading post and a bar. Cookie orders a whiskey, and it does not take long for a fight to ensue. Toby Jones plays the wealthiest man in town, the way he wields his power is an exercise is deep, systemic inequality. Every action and slight, no matter how minor, has an echo in what becomes of Cookie and King Lu. Reichardt suggests that the stripped down setting, one with few people and fewer opportunities, make it that much easier for people to reveal who they really are.
This film begins with a curious framing device. Before we meet Cookie, there is a prologue where a young woman in the present makes a startling discovery. It is unclear how the scene connects with Cookie and King Lu’s scheme, at least not until the final minutes. Magaro and Lee are the soul of this film, and what they ask/demand of each other is heartbreaking because it is sincere, unclouded by affectation or pretense. First Cow ends on a moment of rest, and Reichardt does not sentimentalize it. These men do not deserve or earn their rest. They are simply left with no alternative, and First Cow suggests that inevitable decision is where American cruelty was born.