Kelly Reichardt is known for her slow, often devastating portrayals of people on the brink in the American West. First Cow is no different, but she lets a little sliver of light in. There's a little more hope here, and that might be enough to call it her best film yet.
John Magaro stars as Cookie, a traveling cook who's just finished a long haul with a group of drunken, aggressive fur trappers. With no clue of where he'll go or what he'll do next, he strikes up a friendship with King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant he showed kindness to on his journeys. Their partnership will end up being both lucrative and dangerous.
With the arrival of the titular bovine, owned by the wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones), Lu gets the bright idea to steal milk one night so they can enjoy some cakes. When they decide to sell their treats at the market, they cause a frenzy, requiring more heists. The escalating scheme causes suspicion to grow from Factor and a visiting Army Captain (Scott Shepherd).
There's not much more to the film, and that's what gives it power. This is a very simple story, but there are so many rich details and so many wonderful performances. The friendship between Cookie and Lu is a combination of loneliness and opportunity, but their loyalty to each other never feels in doubt, even when circumstances separate them.
This is also a film about capitalism. Even in the wild west, there's a clear hierarchy and people at the bottom can't even get to that first rung. Their modest dreams – owning a bakery and hotel – are dreams just out of reach without a serious influx of cash. And their skills could never be turned into anything beyond subsistence. This would make a great double feature with Hustlers.
Gorgeous 4x3 cinematography and top-notch production design are the honey and cinnamon on top of the treat that is this film. And its last 20 minutes are as exciting as any action movie, even if what preceded it is anything but. All that makes First Cow a movie to savor.
*This film is currently available via On-Demand platforms.