It’s a simple story about friendship and hope. It’s a gently revisionist Western that literally pushes the clichés of the genre out the door in favor of reconsidering stereotypes of masculinity and reworking the fables of “frontiers.” It’s a softly savage deconstruction of the violence and the ironies of the American dream — of capitalism itself. It’s one of the most astonishing movies I’ve seen this year.
Every frame of First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s latest masterpiece, oozes caustic contradiction. Warmth and compassion of the immediate moment is constantly overshadowed by a terrible suspense working on multiple levels, and all of that is in turn haunted by the slow burn of injustice on scales unseen by the characters caught up in their lives and in their own slice of history, but quite obvious — and enraging — to us looking in from the future.
The invitation to look back from here and now is explicit in the film’s opening scene, unexpectedly set today (or close to it). What we learn there will plague the rest of the film, an extended flashback taking place in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s. Cook and baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro: Overlord, The Finest Hours) has journeyed from back East, initially arriving with a band of beaver trappers and gold hunters; these are reflexively aggressive men the softspoken Cookie cannot wait to be done with. An act of kindness and a chance second meeting cements a new friendship with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee: Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back), Justice League).
There is no unpleasant tension in the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, as a lesser movie might have attempted, asking us to wait, perhaps, to see how King-Lu will take advantage of the good-natured and sensitive Cookie. That never happens; the possibility is never even dangled before us. Instead, Reichardt (Night Moves, Wendy and Lucy) — writing again with her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, this time working from his novel The Half-Life — meanders through the gentle domestic routine the men hit upon, making a home that’s as pleasant as possible in this hardscrabble place with few comforts or luxuries. The little town — barely more than a camp, really — that they live on the outskirts of is relentlessly mud-colored, from the rough, utilitarian clothing of the weary inhabitants to the mud itself.
First Cow takes its (bitter)sweet time for a while. It’s as if Reichardt is replicating the slower pace of life of two centuries ago: entire days seem to pass by consumed by nothing more than simple housekeeping chores and daydreaming about how life could be better. And then Cookie and King-Lu, their friendship solid and mutually supportive, hit upon a scheme to make a little money and set themselves on a path to truly taking advantage of the opportunities that this new world offers. As poor men, they recognize that the deck is stacked against them, and they decide that cheating a bit is the only way to win. Their plan involves making sneaky use of the first milk cow to have arrived in the territory, belonging to the chief factor (Toby Jones: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Snowman), a wealthy, casually cruel man who fancies himself sophisticated. They’re taking a dangerous risk, but as King-Lu points out, anything that could possibly be worth doing for the likes of them is going to be risky.
Sketched in the background of Cookie and King-Lu’s venture are hints and suggestions of where the slo-mo invasion by outsiders of this lush and already inhabited land will lead: the beaver with its prized pelt, once almost absurdly abundant, is growing more sparse; a few Native characters bring color both literal and figurative to the white man’s dun world, but we know the eventual fate of their culture. And always in the foreground is the precariousness of what the men are attempting. There is no rugged independence here, no taming of nature, no triumph of the bringing of civilization — none of the mythologizing that has warped our understanding of American history. There are no heroes in any sense of the word. There is only tragedy all around. Most of all in the absurdity of traveling all this way to a new land inhabited by new people with their own intriguing ideas about the best way to live… and just hauling along all the bullshit nonsense about money and “success” that people were trying to escape in the first place.