The films of Kelly Reichardt are about as indie as you can get. Shot on shoestring budgets with largely unknown actors, early works like Old Joy and Rivers of Grass are undeniable masterpieces of American cinema. Intimate, specific, and unsentimental, these films tell hard stories about relationships between outsiders lost at the crossroads of history and modernity.
Reichardt begins First Cow, her latest film, in the present day, with a young woman’s discovery of two buried skeletons: she was out walking when her dog began to dig one up. The film then flashes back to Cookie (John Magaro), a young man whose job is to feed a group trapping their way through the Oregon territory in the 1820s. We first see him foraging for mushrooms in the forest. Cookie’s sensitive demeanor sets him apart from the rugged, brutish trappers, who look like bears as they waddle around wrapped in animal skins. But he is creative, resourceful, and loves to cook.
After being chased out of camp by the trappers, he finds King Lu (Orion Lee) hiding naked and freezing in the forest. King Lu is on the run from Russian traders who have killed his friend. Cookie gets him something to eat and wear before their paths part ways. They soon run into each other again at Fort Tilikum on the Columbia River, and an easy bond forms between them. Though both have come out to the territory to make their fortunes—Cookie from out east, King Lu from Canton—their demeanors contrast nicely: King Lu is a dreamer and a talker with big plans, while Cookie is guarded and keeps his gaze just ahead of him. He stays busy with small tasks, cleaning, picking, and, especially, cooking.
Reichardt’s 1820s Oregon is a world in tumult. As King Lu notes, it’s a place where everyone is congregating in expectation of some great change. For Cookie and King Lu, the change arrives in the form of the eponymous cow—the first ever in the territory, brought in by the English Chief Factor (legendary British character actor Toby Jones) to provide milk for his tea. Cookie and King Lu hatch a plan to steal a little of the cow’s milk, and then more and more, so that Cookie can use the cream to bake small cakes, which they begin to sell at Fort Tilikum. But as their baking business grows more successful, they come ever closer to being caught.
Many of Reichardt’s familiar themes and concerns are on display here. The character of the people in this film is often revealed through their work: what they do and how they do it. She likes to show us an action’s every step; few scenes in Meek’s Cutoff are more memorable than the unbroken shot of Michelle Williams finding, loading, and firing a rifle, a mundane action lent extra significance by Reichardt’s unwillingness to cut away. The most delightful scenes in First Cow involve Cookie picking berries or mixing batter as King Lu idles in the background. The calm activity of the one is balanced against the nervous inactivity of the other. When the two finally get split up, it is a catastrophe. One particular shot of hands grasping all manner of currency—shells, silver, company scrip—strongly recalls Bresson’s L’Argent, foreshadowing the film’s quietly harrowing final scenes, in which everything the pair has built is roughly and easily thrown aside.