Set in the same Oregon wilderness that surrounds most of her characters and revolving around the similar themes of loneliness, companionship, and survival, First Cow, like much of Kelly Reichardt's work, is a minimalist tale with an intense emotional impact. It begins in what appears to be present-day with a young woman, played by Alia Shawkat, and her dog (sound familiar?) discovering the skeletal remains of two people holding hands. Then without any indication, the narrative jumps back to the early 1800s to tell the bulk of the story which centers around a meek cook and a Chinese immigrant who become friends and start a business that revolves around the cow of a wealthy landowner.
Reichardt strips this story (based on a novel by frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond) down to its bare essentials. When we're first introduced to the cook, aptly nicknamed Cookie, he's ostracized from his traveling group. So when he stumbles across King Lu helpless and naked in the woods, fleeing Russian pursuers, he gives him a helping hand. This chance encounter brings their friendship on a note of sincere kindness and compassion that reverberates through the rest of the narrative.
The film finds a concrete structure after another elliptical time shift (though not spanning centuries this time) when Cookie is reunited with King Lu and the two scheme to steal some milk from a wealthy dignitary's cow. With this added ingredient, their oily cakes become so popular at the market, they have to keep up their nightly milking escapades to satisfy demand, all while insisting it's a "secret ingredient." It's a wholesome story, but we assume their eventual fate is ultimately tied to that first scene, and that looming dread is devastating.
Reichardt shoots First Cow in 4:3, which smartly limits how much of the frame stretches beyond our characters, because naturally, our eyes want to wander across the beautiful wilderness landscapes and textured environments. The tight aspect ratio creates a sense of intimacy that compliments the narrative and focuses our attention on the subtle emotional performances by the leads, who are outstanding in their restraint and body language. There are some familiar faces in the supporting cast: Lilly Gladstone, Ewen Bremner, and most notably Toby Jones, but it's John Magaro and Orion Lee who imbue First Cow with its deep emotional core.
First Cow, photo by Christopher Blauvelt, courtesy of A24
The most curious aspect about Reichardt's new film, though, is the distinct lack of female characters. Not since Old Joy has she made a film without a female lead or at least a prominent supporting female character, and those familiar with Old Joy have already drawn obvious parallels between that and First Cow based on the description, though the two films branch off in very different directions. But both films serve to dismantle traditional concepts of masculinity and explore masculine companionship in a way we rarely get to see.
There's a palpable emotional earnestness and rawness at the center of Reichardt's work that's not often found in modern American films, even from independent filmmakers. Her films demand patience and assume a level of emotional intelligence in the audience in a way that's audacious and admirable. First Cow evokes European slow cinema, but the central story, which functions like a fable about friendship in the face of harsh living conditions and bitter capitalism, is uniquely American.
Despite not being nearly as grim or humorless as some of Reichardt's other work, First Cow is still not for everyone. Some will find it too slow or unengaging; the first shot alone acts as a litmus test: a long static shot of a boat slowly entering the frame and moving across the water, unrelated to anything that follows. But for those who appreciate challenging films that reward emotional investment, it's a transfixing and invigorating experience.
Watch other Kelly Reichardt films here