Kelly Reichardt begins her newest film with William Blake’s famous quote: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” From this and one of its first shots – two skeletons laid in the dirt beside each other – the filmmaker makes it known that First Cow is about nature, devotion and friendship. As we watch an unknown woman uncover the bones of two men we later meet, there’s a sense of dread present. Who are these men, and how did they meet their demise? The answer to that question and the film that follows it is, unlike its terse and solemn opening, birthing an immersive tale filled with warmth.
Cookie Figowitz (a sincere John Magaro), is an outcast travelling with a group of fur trappers in the pacific northwest. He moves along quietly, as the intensity of the trappers wares on him, until one day, he meet’s King-Lu (a stellar Orion Lee) who is on the run for killing a man. The two quickly strike up a tender bond, move into a run down shack, and share their dreams of the future with each other. Their friendship becomes one filled with devotion and urgency, once the two discover the first milk cow to grace the northwest stands only a walk away. In the night, Lu watches guard as Cookie milks the cow, and the two decide to use their skills to make goods to sell to the other inhabitants of the land. What follows would usually be an intense cat-and-mouse game, but instead unfolds into a terse and poetic story about the devotion to the american dream.
Finding friendship and love later in one’s life seems to be a hard thing to come by, but Cookie and King-Lu find each other at the right time in both their journey’s. Cookie’s sincerity and Lu’s earnestness go hand in hand in both these men’s quests to finally find something their lives have both lacked. Reichardt proposes both of them have been outcasts their whole life (Cookie a recluse and Lu a Chinese immigrant), and within each other they finally find a home. There’s a striking shot from inside Lu’s house that frames Lu outside (through the window) and Cookie in the doorway, but the camera allows the audience to watch Cookie observing Lu. It’s like at times neither men can believe the other is there. Along with the American dream, they’ve been searching for companionship and life, like everyone has. Magaro and Lee’s chemistry is some of the best of the year, and they both play these characters with a wavering tenderness that is welcome among the usual films about male friendship that dominate modern cinema.
Although it ends in what could be argued as despair, First Cow feels like a long awaited embrace cinephiles have yearned for during this period of isolation. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt captures Oregon with such lushness, the greenery seems to flow from the screen. He also films Evie the Cow in a way that frames her in heavenly light – fully translating her impact on not only Cookie and Lu, but the land she inhabits. The film’s intimacy doesn’t just come from it’s looks, but Cookie’s whispered conversations with the films titular cow. These nighttime visits feel like tender revelations: sweet nothings whispered in the dark that embed themselves into your brain far longer than the film runs. John Magaro’s career has been an intriguing one, and with Cookie, Reichardt has finally allowed him to shine as a lead – kind eyes and all.
First Cow is the perfect film to watch when the world seems too heavy, and you need to lose yourself in the life of another. Kelly Reichardt has painted a beautiful portrait of the early fight for the American dream. It’s also an ode to the act of dreaming, as Cookie and Lu allow themselves to think of a future where they own a hotel in San Francisco – meeting people and serving up good food. Even though it may seem out of reach, dreaming for a life better than the one we currently live, is one of the bravest and human things we can do. Cookie, Lu and the film they live within is lush and tender, a perfect contrast to the cruel and desolate world we’ve been propelled into this year.