The American West is about as well-trod territory as there is in movies, but Kelly Reichardt keeps unearthing new treasures.
Her latest excavation, “First Cow,” is her most sublime yet. Like many of Reichardt’s previous films, it’s set in Oregon but in a seemingly unremarkable in-between moment in history. It’s a tale literally dug up. In its opening scenes, a contemporary woman and her dog are walking near a broad river where an oil tanker slowly glides past. The dog sniffs something first, then the woman sets to clawing the dirt away.
Her find can only be mysterious to her; it reveals nothing for posterity or science. Just some eternal truths, and one achingly lovely yarn that reaches, through time and cinema, to today. “First Cow” leaps back to the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, where a pair of aimless and impoverished travelers are brought together by circumstance, kindness and baked goods.
Otis, known as “Cookie” (John Magaro), is a cook for a band of trappers who gruffly order him around. Shortly before coming to a sparsely populated trading post, he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who, having been sought for murder, Cookie finds cowering naked behind a fern.
They have an immediate rapport, and recognize in each other fellow low rungs on the already forming ladder of society. When they later encounter each other at the trading post, a tender, unspoken friendship develops between them. King-Lu invites Cookie, a shy and guileless grown orphan soulfully played by Magaro, to drink a bottle at their shack. Once there, Cookie sweetly begins to sweep the place and add a few flowers. It’s as beautiful a beginning to a friendship as you’re likely to see this side of “Casablanca.”
Friendship is indeed what “First Cow,” a simple and radiant Old West fable, is about. The movie opens with a quote from William Blake about its indispensable and homely place in life: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” But as a portrait of human connection, “First Cow” is situated within the rugged terrain of capitalism, even the rough and ill-formed variety found 200 years ago in the Pacific Northwest.
King-Lu, the sharper schemer of the two, senses an opportunity. “History isn’t here yet,” he says. “It’s coming but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” The tragedy of “First Cow” is that it has, in fact, already arrived, and any momentary window of opportunity and freedom is fast closing for Cookie and King-Lu.
Ordered by the area’s local official (Toby Jones), the territory’s first bovine (Evie, in the credits) arrives on a raft while onlookers gawk. The force of history has been heralded by many sounds before — a railroad whistle, for instance. But I can’t recall it ever before arriving with a “moo.” One man jokes that the cow is no more suitable to the Oregon frontier than the white man.
King-Lu, impressed by Cookie’s baking, hatches a plan of udder brilliance. The two stealthily sneak milk from the cow at night, and the next morning with the otherwise impossible-to-find ingredient, Cookie whips up a rare delicacy. Their “oily cakes” sell like hot cakes, bringing daily lines of mean and mangy trappers eager for a taste. Their success stokes their dreams; King-Lu and Cookie start fantasizing about opening a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. But it also brings peril, especially once they earn the admiration of Jones’ gentleman.
The joys of “First Cow” are many. The thoughtful, unshowy textures of its clothes and surroundings. The fabulous chemistry of its two leads. The softly stirring guitar of William Tyler’s score. All of these details add up to a wholly original western, one with its own rhythms, ideas and iconography. Like previous Reichardt films, its screen is a near-square box, which here doesn’t hem in the normally widescreen landscapes of the West but reorients its focus.
“First Cow” is based on the novel “The Half-Life,” by Jon Raymond, a frequent collaborator of Reichardt’s who wrote the script with her. Though not a household name, Reichardt has long been one of the more celebrated American filmmakers for films (“Old Joy,” “Certain Women,” “Meeks’ Cutoff”) that with a spare, untamed beauty have remapped the Pacific Northwest.
Her best-known film might be “Wendy and Lucy,” with Michelle Williams, about a broke drifter and her dog. They could easily be the same woman and canine who kick off “First Cow.” In that way, they’re a kind of modern-day echo of Cookie and King-Lu. The same struggles persist, but, thank heavens, so does companionship.
“First Cow,” an A24 release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for brief strong language. Running time: 121 minutes. Four stars out of four.