Underlying many of Kelly Reichardt’s films is the desire to create human dramas that comment obliquely on the environment where they take place. In Meek’s Cutoff, the pioneers are aliens in a strange world who are just as subject to their own fallacies as they are to the unforgiving land they are traversing. In Wendy and Lucy, poverty is just as much a state of mind as it is a harsh, physical reality for Michelle Williams’ Wendy. Reichardt’s latest film First Cow, based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life, is definitely part of this unique lineage, yet it also features interesting, new perspectives on some of the themes that persist in her work.
First Cow takes place in Oregon Territory during the pioneer era, when fur trapping attracted many fortune seekers to the mostly uncultivated land. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a cook-for-hire who meets King Lu (Orion Lee) in the middle of night. Their meeting is memorable for the fact that King Lu is stark naked and is on the run from Russian trappers who want his head. When the two cross paths again, they devise a plan to use the milk from the only cow in the territory, which belongs to a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones), to make biscuits that they can sell for a substantial profit.
First Cow features an early form of capitalism, a stereotypically masculine and aggressive mode of behavior, yet the men that Reichardt chooses to focus on are far from masculine stereotypes. Our first introduction to Cookie is when he is gently picking mushrooms. The vulnerable state in which King Lu first encounters Cookie epitomizes the openness and gentleness that characterize their relationship. Even the crime that they commit is a nonviolent, low-impact one. Though the rich landowner is deprived of his milk, it becomes clear from a later visit to his relatively large mansion that his finances have not taken a serious blow. The two men even advise each other against greed and take only what they need to make their fortunes elsewhere.
There are hints of a modern eye highlighting issues that were only subtext in older Westerns. The Native American servants are featured heavily in the rich man’s house as a reminder of how their culture and people were co-opted to serve their colonizers. Reichardt also takes great pains to show just how diverse the Pacific Northwest really was with the inclusion of King Lu and the still-present indigenous population. Though Reichardt sees the story with a modern perspective, she also delights in the old-fashioned nature of her story. The 4:3 aspect ratio is utilized for beautiful, painterly compositions rather than the rugged, dirty, flashy cinematography one might expect from many postmodern Westerns. She also spends a lot of time showing how the two men commit their crime in the most gentle and subtle way possible, with Cookie constantly soothing the cow while milking her. While violence and danger threaten Cookie and King Lu’s lives, she sets aside the conventional thrills and uses even chase scenes to further build this world.
Though Reichardt has criticized both the patriarchy and, more indirectly, ruthless capitalism in her films, she is more concerned with portraying a friendship between two men in a film genre that few directors have explored. The world First Cow depicts is on the precipice of modernity, and it will take a while for it to embrace the changing times. However, as King Lu notes, more cows are coming to the territory, and their small operation will soon be subsumed by wealthier capitalists and crooks. While the Oregon Territory is far from some idyllic paradise in First Cow, it could also be a refuge for people who had no chance of fitting into mainstream society. Reichardt and Raymond take great delight in imagining a gentle, touching story during this special time and era