For 25 years, director Kelly Reichardt has been plugging away at her oeuvre, eight feature films that carefully observed American life on the fringes. Since 2006, Reichardt has collaborated with writer Jon Raymond on what could be considered her Oregon films: “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Night Moves,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and now “First Cow,” potentially her masterpiece, based on a novel by Raymond.
“First Cow” opens with a William Blake quote: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It’s unclear how that theme will play out in the opening scene. A puppy nuzzles the soil inquisitively, a woman (Alia Shawkat) digs, unearthing two skeletons lying side by side near the banks of a river. Reichhardt is a master of the kind of simple, economical storytelling that masterfully uses the withholding of information to draw in the audience.
This discovery dissolves into the past, into the beautifully lush and punishing woods of the untamed Oregon Territory, into the world of trappers searching for gold in beaver pelts. It’s a stripped-down, grittier Jack London tale, but in this world, it’s not so much the call of the wild that beckons, but the call of home, in the form of comforts that are so far from this untamed frontier. Here, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) forages for mushrooms and salmon to feed the men of the scrappy trapping company he’s signed onto as a cook, as they demand steaks and biscuits.
Cookie is always busy, always watching, always taking in the world around him as a forager and scavenger. One night he discovers a naked Chinese man in the underbrush and he clothes and feeds him, getting to know the intelligent King Lu (Orion Lee), on the run from Russians after murdering one. When they bump into each other later in a muddy shanty town, it seems fated, and the two men effortlessly strike up an easy co-existence in a small hut.
Cookie is contented to busy himself with whatever comes his way, whether it’s berries or fishing or chickens, but King Lu has different, bigger plans, schemes and visions of grandeur in his head. When the very first milk cow makes her way to the town, arriving in an almost regal procession on a river raft, it’s big news. Chief Factor (Toby Jones) now takes his tea with cream like a proper Englishman, and for Cookie and King Lu, it presents opportunity: the chance to bake some proper treats, and naturally, the chance to sell them.
Reichardt and Raymond’s tale is a subtle, yet biting exploration of early markets, primitive systems of capital that crop up in wild places like the Western frontier, where scarcity makes things all the more precious, and money takes many forms. Cookie and King Lu fry up a few oily cakes and sell them for bills, coins and shells, creating a demand for their sweet treats baked with purloined dairy. Scarcity is what makes their endeavor lucrative, and dangerous.
What Reichardt and Raymond present is a story about the power of money in a world where money hardly seems useful. The power it accumulates is like a runaway train, snowballing and steamrolling the delicate webs of connection that humans so tentatively spin. But with a gentle hero like Cookie at its center, with his sweet, sad eyes and deep well of empathy, friendship proves it can prevail in the quietly moving and masterful “First Cow.”
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