“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” says a character sizing up the early 19th-century Oregon Territory in director Kelly Reichardt’s marvelous new film, “First Cow.” Muddy outposts full of gruff fur traders and hearty entrepreneurs have begun cropping up along the river and forest glen, with settlers and scavengers coming together to suss out some sort of civilization. Progress is on the march, in ways both great and small. Since this is a Kelly Reichardt picture the emphasis is obviously on the small, telling a tiny story about forgotten people with the deceptive simplicity of a folk tale. But don’t be deceived by this movie’s modest demeanor, as in its own quiet fashion “First Cow” contains multitudes. It’s a glimpse of America in the process of becoming itself, for better and worse.
John Magaro stars as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, an itinerant chef with a gentle soul — perhaps too gentle for this frontier life. Constantly berated by the surly hunters and trappers with whom he’s traveled, Cookie’s only friend is King Lu (Orion Lee), a wily Chinese immigrant with a head full of get-rich-quick schemes. In many ways, these two outcasts complement and complete one another, so after a hilariously awkward first meeting — King Lu has found himself naked and on the run from some Russians he’s wronged, hiding in the bushes near Cookie’s campsite — the men almost instantaneously relax into the easy rapport of lifelong pals.
“First Cow” is sort of like Kelly Reichardt’s version of a buddy comedy, and while I’ve been a fan forever I honestly didn’t think she had it in her to make a movie this funny. It’s a cold, rugged world out there in the Territory and the friendship between Cookie and King Lu is a balm. This is her warmest film to date, with simple acts of kindness and shared moments of sly humor insulating our characters from the harshness of frontier life. She kicks things off with a quote from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” and it is with great tenderness that “First Cow” conjures that sense of how a friend can always make you feel like you’re at home, even in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, King Lu’s most lucrative plan requires the unwilling participation of the eponymous animal — a large dairy cow from France, imported to the Territory by a British blowhard and beaver industry titan who calls himself the Chief Factor, played by a top-hatted Toby Jones. Each night, Cookie and King Lu sneak onto the property and surreptitiously milk the cow, using their ill-gotten gains to bake the most delicious confections these men in the trading camps have ever tasted. Their “oily cakes” become a sensation, eventually drawing the admiration of the moneyed magnate, who has yet to put together that their secret ingredient is being pilfered from his backyard.
I’ve been describing the film to friends as “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” meets “The Great British Baking Show,” and like Robert Altman’s 1971 masterpiece the movie is very much about how rapacious capitalism was already eating this country alive while it was in the process of being born. “First Cow” also shares with the earlier film a spectacular sense of place, with these bustling, ramshackle encampments feeling like sites magically unearthed from the distant past instead of built like regular movie sets. In one of his final roles, Altman’s secret weapon René Auberjonois hovers on the sidelines like something of a cinematic benediction.
Loosely adapted from Reichardt’s regular writing partner Jon Raymond’s sprawling 2004 novel “The Half-Life,” the story here has been boiled down to the barest of essentials, and perhaps rejiggered a bit. (“In the book, there was no cow,” the director told our disbelieving audience at last year’s New York Film Festival screening.) But the power of this tale is in the simple strokes and small details that gain great importance. A scene in which Cookie picks up a broom and begins to sweep is so much more than just a dude doing a chore, but rather the kind of gesture that can make your heart swell with a sense of community. The movie has a lot of moments like that.
The film finds great humor in Chief Factor and his ostentatious displays of wealth, with droll appearances from Gary Farmer and Lily Gladstone as Native Americans who both we and the Chief can never be 100% sure aren’t making fun of him to his face. Still, his fenced-in property, imported livestock and manicured lawn are harbingers of what’s to come, with residences carved out of the Territory instead of growing naturally from the terrain. The movie has a good time ripping off the rich, but Reichardt never lets us forget that the bittersweet ending of “First Cow” has already been foretold by a (literally) grave, present-day framing device. History always gets there eventually.
This article was originally published on March 11, 2020.