Some of the most fascinating filmmakers seem to have been born at the wrong time. Whit Stillman should have been writing Restoration comedies, Guy Maddin appears to have sprung fully formed from the silent-film era, and Béla Tarr’s movies are incomplete without a desolate medieval village. Kelly Reichardt is in their class, and as demonstrated by great films such as Meek’s Cutoff, she seems most comfortable chopping her way through the wilds of 19th-century Oregon — you’d never guess that she was born and raised in Miami. Her latest film, First Cow, received a theatrical release this past spring that was aborted due to the pandemic, so it reaches streaming platforms this weekend. Like her other movies, this one needs the sort of patience and concentration that you get from a darkened room devoted to the purpose, but a film by her is worth seeing by any means.
Reichardt has frequently collaborated with screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, and this film adapts his 2004 debut novel The Half-Life. I admit I haven’t read it, but the film looks like quite its own thing; half the book is set in the 20th century, a plotline that is reduced to a brief prelude with a present-day woman (Alia Shawkat) finding two skeletons in the woods. The story begins in earnest in the 1820s with Otis Figowitz, a diminutive Jewish man from Maryland nicknamed “Cookie” as the designated hunter and forager for a party of settlers heading west toward a fort on Tillicum Beach. He meets and gives food to a starving Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) who’s on the run from gangsters. They part and then reunite at the fort, where they witness the arrival of the first cow ever in the Oregon Territory, belonging to the British territorial governor (Toby Jones). The beast gives them the idea to set up a business for the prospectors and fur trappers in the area by sneaking onto the governor’s property and milking the cow late at night, using the milk to make batter for deep-fried, donut-like “oily cakes,” drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. They are an immediate hit, and soon the two have so much money that they wish for a bank. “History hasn’t gotten here yet,” says King-Lu, who has sailed around the world. “It’s coming. Maybe we can be ready for it.”
This is undoubtedly Reichardt’s most food-obsessed movie, and it may end up as the food film of the year. Cookie dreams of making buttermilk biscuits instead of the dry flour-and-water bread he’s used to, while King-Lu muses about huckleberry tarts and gathering hazelnuts and almonds to sell to the locals. The governor buys one of the oily cakes and says, “I taste London in these cakes.” He promptly hires Cookie to make him a blueberry clafoutis for some important guests. Our two protagonists are connoisseurs, much like John C. Reilly’s hitman in The Sisters Brothers, who tastes the dill in his borscht. Even in the roughest circumstances — maybe especially in the roughest circumstances — we crave a bit of refinement to remind us that not everything is terrible.
Already we see capitalism despoiling the land here; King-Lu wants to ship beaver glands back to China for use in traditional Chinese medicine, but finds that the animals are already scarce because of the fur trade in what will become the Beaver State. Still, our main characters aren’t helpless victims of the system here. King-Lu’s the entrepreneurial mind in this partnership, and while he imagines setting himself and Cookie up in a hotel in San Francisco, he has the foresight to know that they need to make their money now before other cows arrive in the region. They resort to crime because they don’t have startup capital. Later, when he’s in a tight spot, he trades for a canoe with a Chinook Indian (James Jones) by speaking the native’s language. The film does not translate the conversation for us, as Reichardt has never been a filmmaker to hold our hands through the storytelling process.
At bottom, First Cow is all about male friendship, and in that regard, it’s more successful than her much-lauded previous film on the subject, Old Joy. Neither Cookie nor King-Lu fit the archetype of the rugged outdoorsman, and they initially band together for survival, but they find common interests in a West that is inhospitable to them both. Reichardt’s sympathies have always lain with people on the margins of society (women, often), and her compassion for these two social misfits who’ve been born at the wrong time themselves is greatly affecting. A good friend is an even sweeter gift than an oily cake, and this film will make you appreciate both.
Starring John Magaro and Orion Lee. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Written by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, based on Raymond’s novel. Rated PG-13.