In the essay accompanying our release of Certain Women (2016), Ella Taylor writes that director Kelly Reichardt’s “specialty is the transformation of landscape—whether cheerless wasteland or broody paradise—into a stage for journeys of the parched soul.” In First Cow, the landscape is the barely settled Oregon Territory of the 1820s. It’s one of the “mix-tape elements,” as Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay calls them, the nods to Reichardt’s previous films that several critics have spotted in First Cow since it premiered last month at Telluride. Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera has told Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman that he wanted the film for this year’s competition lineup, but distributor A24 opted to skip both his festival and Toronto. First Cow screens once more this evening at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters in March.
Following their collaboration on Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013), Reichardt and Portland-based writer Jonathan Raymond have taken one of the parallel narratives from Raymond’s 2004 debut novel, The Half-Life, as the backbone of First Cow. The film opens with a line from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” In a brief prologue set in the present, a young woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog are out walking when they discover a half-buried skull. A little digging reveals the skeletons of two men holding hands.
Presumably, these are the remains of Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a loner first seen foraging for mushrooms and berries, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be on the run from a band of Russians. Cookie quietly prepares meals for the rowdy fur trappers at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post. “Assisted by William Tyler’s warm acoustic score,” writes Vikram Murthi at the Film Stage, Reichardt “emphasizes hunger as the great equalizer amongst even the harshest men, and how the presence of food, let alone good food, can allow for vulnerability and joy.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney finds that the “attention to character in the faces alone is remarkable, from beloved veteran Rene Auberjonois as a crusty loner with a pet crow to Ewen Bremner as a blustery military flunky with a passion for cribbage and a Scottish brogue he possibly hasn’t laid on so thickly since Trainspotting.” As the local English landowner living in the community’s only stand-alone house with his Native American wife (Lily Gladstone), Toby Jones plays the Chief Factor as “a pompous twit without resorting to caricature, while [Scott] Shepherd is similarly measured in conveying the Captain’s sense of smart superiority.”
For the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, though, “the movie belongs to Magaro and Lee, whose characters first meet in the woods. After some misadventures—including a narrow escape that shows Reichardt gently flexing her action muscles—the two men reunite and set up house together, cooking, sewing, philosophizing. As she did in Old Joy, Reichardt is exploring the tensions and tenderness of a male friendship. Here, though, the men’s relationship, with its kindness, virtues and mutual dependences, also offers a vision of an American dream not yet wholly corrupted by unbridled self-interest.”
When Jones’s landowner brings that first cow to the trading post, Cookie and King Lu conspire to steal milk at night and bake and sell little cakes that turn out to be wildly popular, and the landowner invites them to prepare a special dish for one of his guests. “There’s a delight to watching the ironies of this political economy play out,” writes Scott Macaulay, “pleasures accentuated by the intimacy of the film’s 4:3 framing (cinematography is by Chris Blauvelt) and the sparse beauty of Leslie Shatz’s sound design.”