Muscala’s review published on Letterboxd:
Reichardt's latest has her back in period piece mode, this time in 1820s Oregon where a pair of entrepreneurs meet by chance and form a close bond. It plays something like a combination of Old Joy and Meek's Cutoff (coincidentally my favorites from her)- combining genuine male friendship, a quiet reverence for nature, and that period setting to produce her finest film to date.
As in Night Moves she shows her skill in mining suspense from mild situations but more often First Cow has a calming sweetness to it that is so easy to escape into. The unlikely friendship quickly turns into a business partnership when trained baker Cookie is encouraged by the business-oriented King-Lu to begin selling simple "oily cakes" to the locals. The only problem is they require milk and already this new land leaves such luxuries to men in power. So they steal.
It is the most innocuous on-screen crime imaginable but the stakes are very real and severe punishment waits around the corner, all because of some milk to bake sweets. The film is certainly operating as a parable of sorts about the hazards of capitalism but is not the sort of didactic story where characters are mere archetypes and the message suffocates the story. Reichardt is too skilled and nuanced a filmmaker to fall into such pitfalls. No one shoots nature quite like her, existing somewhere between the worshipful idyllicism of Malick and the intimidating indifference of Herzog. It is always beautiful so she can come across more on that end of the spectrum but consider the simple introduction which is bookended by a man-made affront to nature sailing down a river and two skeletons surrounded by earth, seemingly nature's response.
Every scene is just so transportive for me. I can smell that certain smell on riverbanks in the morning, reach out and touch the bark on a branch. I can't explain how she does it so consistently across her filmography but she captures what it really feels like to be out there and I always want to go hiking the day after. This got really long-winded and probably stopped making sense awhile ago so I'll just say I think it's her masterpiece and call it a night