First Cow

First Cow ★★★★½

I've been in a big Altman phase recently, but I am sure I'm not the first person to compare First Cow with Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Both films share a setting (Oregon when it was still the frontier, in a town that's not yet quite a town), both focus on a central duo involved in essentially a get rich quick scheme that requires bending the law, and both are ultimately about how the frontier was socialized through plunder and the reduction of freedom. Both movies even feature Rene Auberjonois, with First Cow serving as one of his final performances. At the core, though, what makes both films so moving is their focus on outsiders finding a bond and making a connection with someone who sees the world in a similar way.

Kelly Reichardt's films are all, in one way or another, about wanderers who find whatever sense of place they can in connections with other people (First Cow opens with a line from William Blake's Proverbs of Hell that seems to fit Reichardt's general philosophy to a tee: "The bird, a nest, the spider, a web, man friendship."). First Cow's central duo, "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), cling to each other from the start as more a lifeline than a best friend, and their bond is the film's beating heart. This is a love story (though not a specifically romantic one), and Magaro and Lee are both fantastic in the subtle ways they communicate separate senses of longing. Cookie has never found a place he could call home, and wants little more than to practice his craft of baking with some sense of security. Lu is far more ambitious, but he too has a hole in his heart. You get the sense both of these men have spent most of their lives alone, scraping by, doing what it takes to survive, and that they see each other as a potential light at the end of the tunnel.

The movie will inevitably be read as a critique of capitalism, and it is that, but its far from the most interesting thing going on here. Its much more interested in the rhythms of life on the frontier, the quietness and the space for contemplation such a life provides, and the loneliness too. This is a slow, ponderous film (what you might call the plot really only kicks in around the halfway point, and the resolution is pretty apparent from the opening scene), sometimes to its detriment. But Reichardt is deliberate in the way she crafts moments with the strength and specificity to illuminate years, letting even walk-on characters feel fully formed, as if they have stories too, just not ones we're hearing this time around. Like the best of her work, I suspect First Cow is going to stick with me for quite some time.