From the opening minutes of First Cow, the latest film by American director Kelly Reichardt, nature has an enormous presence. The camera is as interested in capturing various trees, animals, and mushrooms as it is human faces, and with music used only sparingly, the natural world shapes much of the soundscape. The role it occupies in the characters’ lives is equally prominent; in the Oregon Territory in the early 1800s, as the movie’s production design indicates, even the indoor spaces struggle to keep the wilderness out.
But unlike more traditional depictions of the American frontier, nature is not a punishing landscape to be survived and conquered, fit only for the hardened and the brave. It is gentle, nurturing, beautiful, and most rewarding to gentle, nurturing, beautiful souls. The rugged men who might’ve been heroes in another story feel distinctly out of place, and it makes you wonder if they ever really belonged there at all.
First Cow tells the modest story of two men: Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, a caring, soft-spoken chef traveling West with a group of trappers; and King-Lu, a Chinese globetrotter accustomed to the highs and lows of his bottomless ambition. Beginning with an act of kindness, the two develop a warm friendship that, after realizing they share dreams of a better life, blossoms into a business partnership. Tapping into Cookie’s training as a baker and King-Lu’s natural ability as a salesman, the two decide to sell crude pastries at the local outpost, sure of the demand for a rare moment of sweetness in a largely harsh frontier existence. Their only hurdle is the scarcity of milk, requiring nightly trips onto a local landowner’s property to steal from the first (and only) dairy cow in the Oregon Territory.
Reichardt’s film is one that revels in its own smallness, telling its story with a subtle naturalism that is nevertheless the product of a master craftsman. The production and costume design are both exquisite and unobtrusive, realizing a 19th-century world that somehow feels believably happened-upon. The script prefers the meaningful exchange to the informative one, and though it can sometimes be difficult to catch every word being spoken, what has happened is always crystal clear (a bartering negotiation conducted entirely in a Native American language is one notable example). Though Reichardt avoids announcing her presence with flourishes of filmmaking, the gentle hand of the artist is always visible in the many carefully framed tableaux that make her film a visual delight.
Whatever impression these elements make individually, the tone resulting from their union is perhaps the film’s most striking feature. The single word it left swirling in my mind was “tenderness,” which First Cow takes up as its ethos, both in theme and in its approach to the audience. Despite depicting a society built on exploitation, the narrative is most invested in the friendship between Cookie and King-Lu, heartwarming, enduring, and pure. Reichardt expresses strong faith in human kindness without shying away from our capacity for (even tendency towards) cruelty, and her tale of optimism in the face of pessimism comes off as neither simplistic nor grating. After two hours of soaking in this atmosphere, I continued my day with a sense of peace, a feeling for which I was deeply grateful. Treat yourself to First Cow this weekend, and if it hits you the way I expect it to, you will not regret it.