Weighing Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff and now the very good First Cow next to her horribly dull Certain Women and promising but frustrating Night Moves, perhaps she should make period pieces more often.
Somewhat of a spiritual sequel to her Oregon Trail masterpiece, First Cow is a welcome return to form for the writer/director/editor after an uncharacteristic pair of misfires (that were nevertheless critically adored).
It’s also quite possibly cinema’s most understated crime caper ever. Moving at Reichardt’s distinctly leisurely pace, the film opens on a woman’s dialogue-free discovery of two skeletons at a seemingly present-day seaside, soon followed by a jump to a man collecting mushrooms in the woods — but when and where?
Eschewing expository text identifying time and place, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the source novel, The Half-Life) instead trust viewers to piece the details together, providing just enough clues to do so. And in classic Chekhov’s Gun fashion, the sets of bones leave viewers confident that there will be at least that many deaths to come, casting an enchanting air of dread over the proceedings as to precisely who will meet their end and why.
The subtle changes in clothing and technology imply a visit to the past, and natural conversation reveals that the fungi gatherer is Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro, The Big Short), food provider for a rough company of fur trappers heading to Fort Tillicum.
Shortly after his introduction, Cookie amusingly stumbles upon Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee, Justice League), whom he finds naked in the woods, on the run from a mob of Russians. Based on their brief discussion, the cruelty Cookie’s employers show him and his clear reverence for and awe of nature, it’s implied that Cookie is driven to help the man out of a recognition of similar values — and his goodwill is returned when the two reunite at the fort.
At Tillicum — a fully realized place so muddy, rugged and packed with crusty characters that viewers may crave a bath within minutes — the friends share their dreams and see an opportunity through the titular star, shipped in by London native Chief Factor (Toby Jones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) for the sake of milk in the latter’s tea.
With King-Lu keeping watch, Cookie milks the bovine each night (in borderline indecipherable darkness), talking lovingly to the beast as if she were human, after which the sweet “oily cakes” he makes with the secret ingredient quickly gain a rabid following and set up a pleasant tension as the partners see how wealthy they can become without getting caught.
However, both in establishing this gambit and letting it play out, First Cow’s poetic approach becomes somewhat plodding. Extended stretches pass without dialogue or music, requiring significant patience, but the rich characterization and sense of place win out.
Leading an impeccably cast ensemble, Magaro is perfectly innocent while Lee exudes just the right amount of worldliness and heart. Their friendship is wholly believable and emotional, encouraging viewers to invest in their gutsy, relatable ambitions — the ultimate outcome of which Reichardt leaves nicely ambiguous.
The lack of a spelled-out resolution is sure to drive certain moviegoers nuts, but for those who roll with First Cow’s atypical style, there’s a simple sense of thankfulness that a film this subdued and beautiful exists.
Available to rent starting July 10 via Amazon Video, Apple and other streaming services