Few filmmakers wrestle with what it means to be American the way Kelly Reichardt has injected that question into all of her movies. In a meticulous fashion typical of her spellbinding approach, “First Cow” consolidates the potent themes of everything leading up to it: It returns her to the nascent America of the 19th century frontier at the center of “Meek’s Cutoff,” touches on the environmental frustrations of “Night Moves,” revels in the glorious isolation of the countryside in “Certain Women,” and the somber travails of vagrancy at the center of “Wendy and Lucy.”
Mostly, though, “First Cow” unfolds like “Old Joy” in the Oregon Territory. Once again, Reichardt has crafted a wondrous little story about two friends roaming the natural splendors of the Pacific Northwest, searching for their place in the world. The appeal of this hypnotic, unpredictable movie comes from how they find that place through mutual failure, and the nature of that outcome in the context of an early, untamed America has rich implications that gradually seep into the frame. Reichardt excels at communing with natural beauty and humankind’s complex relationship to it, but “First Cow” pushes that motif into timeless resonance.
Though the bulk of “First Cow” unfolds in 1820, it begins with a modern-day prologue in the same woodsy location, where a young woman (Alia Shawkat in a fleeting cameo) uncovers two skeletons lying side by side in the woods. That tantalizing image follows a quote from William Blake — “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship” — establishing the instinctive bond that follows. From there, the movie flashes back to the distant past, telling the origin story of those skeletons as an unsuspecting buddy movie.
It begins with the plight of Cookie (John Magaro), a shy pushover roaming through the forest and serving as the cook for a group of virile fur trappers. Foraging one night after dark, he comes across a wandering Chinese man named King-Lu (Orion Lee), who left his native land long ago and claims to be on the lam from Russians. It’s never quite clear just how much King-Lu’s story has been invented by the mysterious traveler, but when the pair reconnect at the barren Royal West Pacific Trading Post, they immediately bond over mutual alienation. And then, a sneaky business opportunity: When they spot a nearby property owner bringing the first cow to the region, they come up with a plot to steal its milk so they can sell biscuits and oil cakes to the weary travelers passing through the region. With time, this plot becomes an origin story of greed, desperation, and the American dream, rooting it in a sincere desire to find success in an unforgiving world. Cookie and King-Lu may be reckless, but they’re a lovable pair, compelled by a quest to succeed that transcends the specificity of its setting.
There’s a fundamental metaphorical dimension to this unusual plot — the very nature of Eastern and Western characters, hesitant to join forces as they map out an unrealistic plan to conquer the world, invites many interpretations — but Reichardt doesn’t overplay it. Instead, “First Cow” lingers in the scenery, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt drawing out the storybook wonders of a landscape dominated by hulking trees and unforgiving rivers. “History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King-Lu tells his new pal, and it’s unclear if their presence represents an opportunity or a threat.
“First Cow” has been adapted from “The Half-Life,” a novel by Reichardt’s longtime collaborator John Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with her. Raymond’s novel, however, contrasted the frontier setting with a modern-day tale of friendship; by dropping that storyline, Reichardt allows the period backdrop to take on an inquisitive quality that interrogates the present without confronting it directly. William Tyler’s ebullient score draws out the gradual sense of possibility percolating through the empty scenery, and gives the story a sweeter quality than the melancholy dominating much of her work. It hovers in the ambition of its characters, setting up the emotional process they undergo when the reality of their scheme comes crashing into the pictures.
Eventually, the pair run into problems with a wealthy British trade mogul (Toby Jones, relishing the part of an avaricious colonist) who hires them to bring some of their tasty biscuits over, not realizing they’ve been stealing ingredients from his backyard to make them. This encounter sets the scene for a mesmerizing chase across the messy scenery, and a hypnotic encounter with indigenous peoples that serves as Reichardt’s latest trenchant reminder that someone else had this land first. But even here, Reichardt doesn’t indict her wayward characters for falling prey to proto-capitalist impulses; instead, they’re victims of a universal struggle to find success and stability, and in the process they find each other.
With a few more telling glances, “First Cow” might have turned the ballad of King-Lu and Cookie into the material for a homoerotic Western, but Reichardt doesn’t force that context onto material with broader intentions for its characters. Magaro buries himself in the role of a lonely introvert a world apart from his more conventional turns on “Orange is the New Black” and in “Carol,” crafting a tender figure whose understated nature makes it all too easy for others to impose their agenda onto him. Lee, meanwhile, inhabits a mysterious figure at odds with his foreign identity, with a sneaky grin that hides big plans that never quite come to fruition.
King-Lu and Cookie need each other not only to survive but to bond over that very same need, and “First Cow” commiserates with their journey in a kind-hearted fashion that allows the movie to resonate with more warmth than it initially lets on. As with all of her work, Reichardt communes with the notion that even reckless people simply want to find meaning in their small corners of existence, and the last three words of the story — “I’ve got you” — have a cathartic power that suggests no victory can be greater than companionship itself.
“First Cow” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival and next plays NYFF. A24 will release it in 2020.