The endpoint of writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is revealed in its opening; a pair of skeletons lying next to each other in an unmarked grave. We can guess who they are after meeting Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), and understanding their time and place. Not everyone gets a lavish funeral on the American frontier—though everyone is indeed due to die. Reichardt’s film is best approached from that perspective. It’s both a gentle tale of friendship and a document of the larger forces grinding all men to dust.
That makes First Cow sound grim, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite those old bones, the most refreshing element of the film, specific to much of Reichardt’s oeuvre, is its languid sense of tenderness. As co-written with Jonathan Raymond (from his novel), the film centres first on Cookie, a skilled albeit quiet cook. He stumbles on Lu, naked and on the run, and decides to help—a kindness repaid when they reunite later in town. Finding something in the other, Cookie and Lu go into business together; it’s for survival, but also a means to create community, with each other and the town. Naturally, a cow plays a part in this miniature drama too. It’s her milk the pair borrows, and their lack of ownership of said milk that puts them in danger. The film presents this threat (represented by Toby Jones and uniformed men) to its lovable characters, yet Reichardt’s technique resists overt suspense. Instead, we’re given time to think about who Cookie and Lu are, what their friendship means, and how their—and, by extension, our—society actually works.
As with Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s previous alternative period piece, the matter-of-fact handling of the material fosters a sense of accuracy, one that resists usual genre tropes. Reichardt’s actors, with Magaro an obvious stand out, carry this calming energy too. In this, like Cookie, her craft is strong but not domineering. We reflect on what these men’s lives are worth when all anyone can think is: first, cow. Standing in even modest opposition to that suddenly feels quite radical.