Director Kelly Reichardt knows how to shoot nature. Her camera lingers on its many delights in rapturous color: the dew-dripping leaves, the wind-rushed rapids, the green glades and the rounded trees with darkened knotholes.
Yet, in most of Reichardt's films, including her latest, First Cow, the director acknowledges that amid the soft blanket of trees and shaded light, there also lies danger. Her films are often seen wrongly as meditations on the themes of natural wilderness coalescing with man; her reality instead tends to also tease out the savagery and cruelty that belie such a pastoral space.
In possibly her best-known work, Meek's Cutoff, Reichardt focuses on a Western caravan of pioneer families looking for a better life. They instead face the possibility of attack from Native American tribes in the early 19th century and must use their poorly matched wits to protect themselves. In possibly her best film, Wendy and Lisa, a homeless young women (Michelle Williams, who stars in both these films) searches a modern wilderness for her missing dog. She encounters others who offer no sympathy for the struggling woman or her mission.
First Cow takes these themes to a new venue, Oregon in the 1820s during the gold rush that brought many industrious pioneers in search of plenty. It lushly explores the idea of wilderness as an unfettered backdrop to a better life, a cherished ideal for Reichardt. Among the scramble of trappers and would-be prospectors are two characters with only survival on their minds.
The protagonists, Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), become friends by necessity, thrown together by situation. Figowitz, a baker by trade, has left a group of trappers behind after being threatened with his own safety. King-Lu has more severe problems. He is on the run from Russian trappers after having killed one of them in self-defense after witnessing a murder of his friend.
Cookie finds King-Lu naked and shivering one night and gives him shelter. When the two reconnect after a brief pause, King-Lu returns the favor by offering Cookie his hearth near a trading post town in the forest. King-Lu is an outsider, a man of Chinese descent who has come to America for opportunity. Cookie, while more a part of the Oregon land grab, is milder and easily bullied. They become partners and share alike, going into business together and living under the same roof in a non-sexual manner.
Reichardt finds the humanity among the pair. In one early scene, when Cookie is brought to King-Lu's wooden shack, he immediately gets to work sweeping and cooking, knowing that he is a working part of a pair. King-Lu is more ambitious but equally caring, looking for ways the duo can earn money in an environment where, he says, history has not yet been made. The wilderness represents a blank canvas for their endeavors.
Reichardt is a quiet director. Her scenes have limited dialogue, and she allows her camera to linger on forest paths and listen for the crunch of boots on dirt and birdsong overhead. She, along with Terence Malick (Tree of Life, The New World), is one of a handful of esteemed directors who doesn't blunt a film's mood with plot or overly congested dialogue. She instead lets the camera tell the story. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt captures the haze from smoky fires at the settlement and the dusky nighttime blur that leads to intrigue in this film.
For Cookie and King-Lu are indeed leading a life of intrigue that takes advantage of the subterfuge of the forest. The settlement's wealthiest inhabitant, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has brought in the region's first cow to provide milk and cream to impress his guests. The cow floats downstream on a raft, a Huckleberry Finn with horns, to reach the remote post.
Cookie, an expert baker, decides to sell oily cakes to the traders in order to make a living. The cakes, sort of a sweet biscuit fried like a donut, need milk to provide their rich flavor. It is evident that the aforementioned cow can provide that. So the pair sneak off to Chief Factor's house late at night to secretly milk the animal.
Chief Factor, who wears a top hat and tails into town to showcase his haughty place among the grungier locals, would be enraged if he found out his milk was going to Cookie and King-Lu. He also has guns and minions bidding his orders. Factor is not a particularly benevolent man, judging from a conversation he has where he mentioned that a mutinous offense at sea must be met with death.
The story's tension comes from the imminent danger that the viewer knows will come in time. But in the meantime, the milking and the selling of the wildly popular snacks continues while the townspeople marvel over what makes the oily cakes so good. King-Lu tells them that its secret is a special Chinese ingredient.
Jones, so good as an obsequious and patronizing British dandy, invites Cookie to his home to create a clafoutis, another baked delicacy, that Factor can use to impress a visiting captain and a Native American chieftain. During scenes where Cookie and King-Lu prepare to come to Factor's house, Reichardt deftly plays discordant frontier music, one of the few times that she inserts a musical score into the gentle film.
The rest of the movie becomes far less gentle, as the deception is discovered and the pair again are on the run. Their life of unrest has returned, as Reichardt depicts the savagery behind the peacefulness in a lawless environment where greed outweighs decency.
Shot in a square aspect ratio like a picture frame, the film puts the viewer at a remove from the action, providing the space to soak up the scenery as one would a work of art. But at that, Magaro and Lee play the friends with warmth and good humor while they maintain their survivalist instincts.
The movie will not be for everyone. Viewers who expects a faster pace or a livelier story may be disappointed. First Cow is more about mood and tone than it is about multiple plot strands or even character development. As Reichardt has said in the past, her films plop characters into situations; there is little in the way of exposition behind her creations, as if what's come before for them does not really matter.
But for those who appreciate how cinema can offer pleasures unlike other forms of expression, First Cow offers many rewards. The visual mise en scene is rich and deeply profound, and the characters' sense of communion with each other and the frontier can be transcendent.
Nature is shot as the trigger for great lushness of pleasure and also as a backdrop for random violence. There are two sides to nature and also to the men in this film.