The story begins in the present day, as a young woman (Alia Shawkat) wanders through the Oregon wilderness. Through a twist of fate, she uncovers two calcified skeletons, buried together. Their brittle bones bring a rush of mystery: Did someone place them like this? Or was their last instant of life preserved for an eternity in death?
As we ruminate on these and many other questions, the movie throws us back two centuries, when Western Civilization had only begin to take root in the Pacific Northwest. A group of haggard, hard-bitten trappers forage and fumble their way across the territory, with an affable young cook (John Magaro) in tow. Once these mangy ruffians reach a shambling outpost, “Cookie” Figowitz strikes out on his own. He links up with King-Lu (Orion Lee), a clever Chinese drifter. The two become fast friends: Both of them lean toward philosophical thought, and both share an ambition to be more than hardscrabble nomads.
Destiny presents an opportunity in the form of Oregon’s first cow. She arrives on the barge of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a dimwitted British transplant who qualifies as local royalty because he owns an actual house. This bovine immigrant inspires Lu with a modest scheme: Cookie is a talented chef, but this uncivilized land affords him few actual ingredients. Lu proposes that they sneak onto Factor’s land every night and help themselves to a bucket of fresh milk. This would give Cookie’s biscuits a rich deliciousness these grimy woodsman haven’t seen in ages, if ever. Why, they’d pay a fortune for that! Things go according to plan, until they don’t, of course…
See? This ain’t the sexiest movie in the world, but damned if it’s not still compelling. Magaro and Lee have incredible, unforced chemistry, and they give every bit of dialogue just the right subtle touch. Their relationship grows and changes as the story progresses, and it’s the most rewarding thing about the movie. Jones brings an almost vacant charm to Factor, a man so flighty it seems like he could get lost in his own house. Also, keep an eye out for the late Rene Auberjonois, as a suspicious old grouch who keeps a cawing raven on his shoulder.
In the hands of veteran director Kelly Reichardt, First Cow is a stunning film to watch. I hate the cliché of a “visual feast,” but there it is. This isn’t a classically pretty film. We don’t see John Ford vistas, but the experience of this story pops through the screen. Every scene feels chilly and damp, so much that you might want to crawl under a blanket, and blow the steam from a mug of coffee. The “beds” will put knots in your back from just looking at them. This time and place must’ve been an exhausting challenge, and Reichardt makes us feel every bit of it.
I’ll conclude this review with a Surgeon General-style warning: I loved this movie. I can and will watch it again. But…it’s not for everyone, especially that ending. I applaud any film that doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. First Cow reaches a proper stopping point, then sends us on our way. The script doesn’t do our thinking for us. And that’s why it’s been stuck in my head for several days now. First Cow is one of those rare movies that can be both easy and challenging at the same time.
121 min. PG-13.