One of America’s finest visual poets, Kelly Reichardt’s films breath from the heart. First Cow is exactly the kind of picture that only she could have made. It exists in her singular vision, her sense of the Oregon territory, matched with a larger textual empathy. The film is grand in its poetic license and its treatment of subjects as chiefly human — emotional resonance being the connective tissue behind an odd little indie-film universe. Were it anyone else making the film, First Cow would not have very good prospects. It would sound like a bore of a story, a missable exercise in an alternate history, without any profundity. But it is a Kelly Reichardt picture; it is unmissable, and could only be hers.
The oeuvre of Kelly Reichardt is the most functional filmography of the Pacific Northwest. She has captured the territories stylistically, in her own way, and made some astounding poetic choices. Each film is circular and commenting on the last. With an earthy understanding of folk stories and imparting new value on an old space, the author has bested herself once again — it is a one-person game, that she can only continue to win. The story starts with one of her older works. Wendy and Lucy (that is, Michelle Williams and her dog, from the 2008 film of the same name) start the film with a small slice of the modern-day. They find the remains of what is about to be First Cow‘s main characters, long deceased on the Oregon Trail. That same trail paved in her Oregon Western opus, Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Somewhere nearby, the old boys of Old Joy (2006) would be off soaking in some hot springs, as their friendships branch a greater divide than Meek’s trail cutoff. Reichardt’s interests read as anthropological.
She cares deeply about the humans she puts on-screen. Each is rendered with explicit emotional layers. First Cow has her two finest characters yet. The dearly named Cookie Figowitz (an affecting John Magaro) is a cook out on the trail. He is earnest and true, and his free spirit does not match his associates. His wisdom and courage are in the kitchen, a great baker with a sweet tooth, about to create commerce in Oregon. He befriends a Chinese immigrant by the name of King Lu (the perfect-for-right-now Orion Lee). Their kinship is derived from a commercial partnership. The first cow has arrived to the territory, and at night, the men sneak into the fields of royalty to pinch off a bit of milk from its utters. It becomes a true cow caper, in every sense of those words, but also a benevolent, lovely little baking film, about two kindred spirits meant for each other’s lives. It’s a small story with the largest feeling at the cinema.
Funny thing but First Cow is based on a book without a cow in it. That is the creative liberty and risk a great author can take. Reichardt can afford to twist some material and have it come off as ingenuity, while we ought to forbid other directors from touching too many books. Her collaboration with author Jonathan Raymond keeps the heart of the story close to the text. And yet, you could not imagine the story any other way, visually. It’s enriched with soul and humanity, as though the only response to the confounding social and political issues of the day are to express love more deeply. You come to believe that walking out of her films, that we’re better off for having them, and they are connective, not disruptive.
How rare is it to leave a movie radiating warmth? To feel that the purpose is to bring us all just a bit closer and to feel something real, if not just for the moment, to experience emotions on a genuine and leveled playing field. First Cow is a remarkable work. It is small, quiet, and distinguished, nothing like anything else that is coming to theaters. While the initial release was canned due to the Coronavirus, First Cow‘s place in the year’s cinema has been emboldened. First Cow has the healing power of great compassion. For every reason, it is a must-see piece of poetry.