First Cow is not Kelly Reichardt’s first rodeo. Three of the director’s six previous features have played MIFF, so it’s about time she should win the coveted spot of opening night film. Alas, First Cow may not have been your first choice out of those seven films if you’d been looking at them as equal contenders to launch a festival. Twenty twenty would have been the perfect time for her 2016 film Certain Woman to have been leading the charge.
There are almost no women, in fact, in First Cow, the story of two unlikely friends in 19th century frontier Oregon. Reichardt continues to explore the Pacific Northwest on film, specifically the state of Oregon, and this is her second trip back to 19th century Oregon after 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff.
The first friend, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), is the cook for a group of rough, hungry travelers making their way toward a settlement in the Oregon Territory. He meets the second friend, Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), as he is hiding out while trying to escape some Russians who are looking to kill him. Cookie gets King-Lu some food and manages to smuggle him along with his group – quite a risk as these guys would be just as likely to kill him as the Russians.
The pair take up residence at the settlement just as it is getting its first influx of dairy. Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a proper English gentleman living in the settlement, has imported the cow in order to have milk for his tea. Since the chief needs such little output for that endeavour, Cookie and King-Lu get the idea of secretly milking the unguarded cow at night, which will give them the milk they need for the former apprentice baker to make some delicious biscuits. These so-called oily cakes sell very well in town, but as the budding entrepreneurs try to amass enough money to move on to San Francisco, they are in danger of discovery over the purloined milk.
First Cow has an exceedingly charming first half. Its slow, meditative pace helps us develop an equivalent affection for these men as they are developing for each other. The film’s opening quotation, a proverb from William Blake, is “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” giving us a perfect distillation of how people find their homes amongst the company of other people. The film’s first half is the embodiment of that comforting thought.
Comforting though it may be, that is also one of Blake’s so-called “Proverbs of Hell,” so we probably shouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t turn out as some cheery story of men forging a friendship in a barren and lawless land. But the groundwork Reichardt lays is so gentle – with Cookie establishing a kinship with the cow as well as with the man – that we feel a bit taken aback when things start to go south for them. Stealing a replenishing resource like milk seems among the least crimes a person could be guilty of in Oregon Territory. Yet it begins to look like a serious punishment could be exacted.
The most dispiriting aspect of First Cow is that it lacks a discernible message. One can’t really talk about messages in film reviews without going into spoiler territory, but one can, without too much danger, talk about the feeling one is left with at the end. In this case, it’s befuddlement as to why any of this was being told to us in the first place, as effective as it may be from moment to moment. Kelly Reichardt would seem to know a little more about Oregon with each new film, but in the case of First Cow, it seems she knows a little less about storytelling.