After reports she was looking to make a movie abroad, Kelly Reichardt returns to the familiar wilds of Oregon with “First Cow,” a loose yet engaging adaptation of Pacific Northwest chronicler (and frequent Reichardt collaborator) Jon Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life” — which, according to the director, was the book that made her want to work with him in the first place. Set a decent stretch before “Meek’s Cutoff,” an austere frontier disaster movie that explored the tragic fate of ill-prepared pioneers along the Oregon Trail, “First Cow” restores this familiar territory (which she and Raymond have been exploring since “Old Joy”) to an earlier time, just as the Royal West Pacific Trading Post receives its first dairy cow.
Today, Americans take convenience for granted: Milk is sold by the gallon, biscuits can be gotten ready-made and a sophisticated economy exists for the buying and selling of goods. But Reichardt imagines a situation before so-called civilization — although, by the 1820s, the area had in fact been inhabited for thousands of years, it was still a few decades from statehood — when two outsiders without status found opportunity there, as well as an unlikely kind of friendship, by stealing the milk from the aforementioned cow to make “oily cakes” in a far-flung camp starved for any taste of home.
In their capacity as a mass medium, the movies have been such a powerful tool in shaping the public’s ideas of masculinity that it’s uncommon to see grown men embrace, or otherwise show any kind of physical affection. With this film, and to the extent that you accept Reichardt’s minimalist version of the past as accurate, the director invites us to consider what we have lost since society caught up with this primeval enclave on the edge of the world. Considering the attention Reichardt typically pays to female characters, one might rightly ask, where are the women in “First Cow”?
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There’s one in the opening scene: Alia Shawkat plays an anonymous young Oregonian — let’s call her Wendy — who’s walking her dog (might as well be Lucy) in the woods, when the animal finds a bone. Turns out, it’s a human cranium, long abandoned and only half buried. Lucy wanders off, while Wendy kneels and starts to brush away the surrounding dirt, slowly (everything happens slowly in Kelly Reichardt movies), to reveal two skeletons, both male, lying side by side, holding hands.
That’s the last we see of Wendy or Lucy. From there on, “First Cow” unfolds in the past, concerning itself instead with other mysteries: Who were these two men? How did they get there? How did they die? And what was their relationship? At least, these questions are where certain minds will immediately gravitate, although the beauty of Reichardt’s work is that her movies are slender and unhurried and open-ended enough to invite any number of reactions.
With “First Cow,” we could just as easily muse on the fact that this 21st-century hiker has chosen this afternoon to venture out into the wild, looking for … what? Most likely, she just wanted to escape her modern life for a few hours, to get away from the traffic, ignore the telephone and lose herself in nature.
“First Cow” offers audiences the same opportunity, even if this particular excursion should be laced with melancholy, seeing as how the two men we’re about to meet are bound to die together. Following along as he collects mushrooms, we meet “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), so-called because he prepares the meals for a traveling group of salty fur trappers. Cookie is soft-spoken and too gentle for the likes of them, barely capable of catching wild animals for supper (at one point, he pauses to flip a salamander squirming on its back). He’s certainly not prepared to defend himself from the curious stranger (Orion Lee) he stumbles upon hiding naked in the brush.
At first, Cookie assumes this exotic-looking man is a Native American, only to discover that he’s in fact Chinese, a sailor named King-Lu, on the run from a group of Russians, and desperately hungry. Cookie could easily turn him in, but instead chooses to assist King-Lu, establishing in that instant a connection that blooms when the two men are reunited a short time later at the trading post, a makeshift community with precious few women — and even less in the way of livestock.
Here, Reichardt and Raymond’s script takes its most significant departure from the novel. In the book, Cookie and a different friend earn their fortune trading castoreum, a sweet-smelling substance beavers use to mark their territory. The screen version streamlines their capitalistic venture considerably: Cookie cooks — while King-Lu markets — “oily bread” they make using milk stolen from the colony’s English chief factor (Toby Jones), who has married a Native (Lily Gladstone), lives in a proper house and owns the primitive settlement’s first and only cow. That’s a simpler idea, and one that lends the ensuing story a basic, fable-like quality — far preferable to the relatively elaborate plot of Raymond’s book (described by Kirkus Reviews as “unglamorous and sad, but compelling,” which could also be said for most of Reichardt’s movies).
Reichardt specializes in pared-down narratives, sometimes stripping away so much that boredom sets in. “First Cow” may be lean, but it offers ample room to ruminate in the comparison between its two time periods. Reuniting with “Meek’s Cutoff” DP Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt once again confines the West’s panoramic potential to a nearly square cinematic frame — although in this case, the boxed-in Academy ratio serves to shift our focus from the land to the special bond between these two characters, which is a beautiful thing.
If there are conspicuously few female characters in Reichardt’s latest film (Natives are also included, but strictly in supporting roles), it’s because the director wants to draw attention to a kind of homophilic connection. While not impossible today, it seems easier beyond society’s reach, when the Pacific Northwest was still wild and friendship wasn’t something one declared publicly via Facebook moments after making someone’s acquaintance, but a kind of profound intimacy that developed over time.