Kelly Reichardt’s slowly paced films aren’t everyone’s cup of milk, but I thoroughly enjoyed her latest effort, First Cow. I’ve been a fan since her 2006 feature Old Joy, which like this one deals with friendship in a serene setting. Since then she’s made such striking films as Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women. They are quiet, observational, and at times elliptical; they all bear her unique stamp.
The story of First Cow isn’t so much told as revealed, bit by bit. Following a modern-day prologue, a shot of a boat on the Columbia River takes us back one hundred years to a settlement in Oregon. The pace of life and the tranquility of the locale are as unfamiliar to us as an outpost on the moon. A cook (John Magaro) who is traveling with a group of fur trappers is unable to procure food for his rough-and-tumble employers. He chances to meet a Chinese man (Orion Lee) on the run and they take a liking to each other. Time passes and when they meet up again, the ambitious Lee has settled in a ramshackle cabin and invites Magaro to share living quarters with him. It’s only then that Lee learns that his friend is a genuinely talented baker. This sparks an idea that puts them in business together—and in trouble.
Once the film reaches this point it acquires a narrative energy I didn’t anticipate, adding suspense and humor to its recipe. Toby Jones adds a distinctive flourish to his role as a wealthy man who commissions a celebratory cake from the young baker.
The screenplay was crafted by Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, author Jonathan Raymond. Her filmmaking team is familiar with her sensibilities and helps her achieve her singular vision, imbuing each scene with period authenticity and careful attention to detail.
Reichardt has a way of drawing you into her world, where traditional movie tropes have no place and you’re not always sure where she’s headed. I put my faith in her and more often than not I am rewarded. First Cow, like the woman who made it, is one-of-a-kind.
P.S. The most unexpected name in the credits of First Cow is co-executive producer Scott Rudin, a Broadway and Hollywood powerhouse who has been dickering with Reichardt for several years and came onboard this film within hours of reading the screenplay. As an audience member I congratulate him on his good taste.