You can almost taste the dirt in your mouth and smell the smoke on the wind when losing yourself in this quietly powerful nineteenth-century-set frontier tale from director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt (working with Jon Raymond to adapt his own novel ‘The Half-Life’). It’s a painterly, spare and fitfully witty story of survival and companionship set in the 1820s in The Oregon Territory – the precursor to the US state where indie filmmaker Reichardt has made several earthy films, including ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and ‘Old Joy’. The film is a beguiling window into a distant world – one that at times evokes such claustrophobia as to feel more like a peephole.
Reichardt keeps her focus tight: she’s most interested in the emerging friendship between Cookie (John Magaro), a sweet American travelling as a helper with hard-nosed fur trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a man from northern China who, intriguingly, has found himself on the run in the wooded wilds of the Pacific Northwest. They’re the ultimate odd couple. Cookie and King-Lu become friends, bunk up together in a cabin near a muddy trading post and stumble into a scam which involves them secretly milking the region’s only cow at night. By day they use the same milk to make a small fortune selling biscuits and cakes. Everything in ‘First Cow’ feels like a beginning (although it’s not, of course, for the Indigenous Peoples whose presence and language Reichardt honours along the way).
It’s hard not to view ‘First Cow’ as a poetic blueprint for modern America: this wild corner of the Pacific Northwest is a place where you can hear plummy British voices (Toby Jones plays a pompous wealthy trader) alongside rough Scottish and American accents, hear a Chinese immigrant complain of being chased by Russians and see early capitalism – cow-pitalism? – in action.
The link between the past and the present is only gently pushed by Reichardt. But it’s there in the film’s quick prologue, in which we see a woman in the present walking her dog alongside the river and discovering two skeletons buried together. Who the bones belonged to, and how they got there, are questions that tease us to the film’s melancholy end. ‘History isn’t here yet,’ someone says along the way, but Reichardt gives us a friendship that endures way beyond earthly lives. You come out blinking into the present, with these kinds of ghosts of the past lingering long in the mind.