For much of First Cow, a new movie by director Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) set in 19th-century Oregon Territory, the actors' hands are hardly ever still. They pick berries, stitch clothes, shell mussels, mix dough. We first see the protagonist, Cookie, as he reaches for a wild mushroom nestled among ferns. Encountering a stunned lizard, his dirty but gentle hands set the creature on its feet. It's a lovely moment of characterization that's typical of this movie: poetic, earthy, and tender.
The depiction of Cookie (played by a soft-eyed John Magaro) is the first of many subtle strikes against the white American mythology of the frontier. He seems badly equipped to survive among the ill-tempered gold diggers and other fortune seekers drinking and shooting their way through occupied Native lands. Tagging miserably along with a group of fur trappers, Cookie shies away from brawls, submits to verbal abuse, and remains on the margins of the white community at a rough trading post.
By chance, he falls in with King Lu (a charismatic Orion Lee), his foil in every way: a worldly, multilingual Chinese immigrant with a dozen ideas for making them rich. Somehow, Reichardt and fellow screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote the novel The Half-Life, this movie's source material) avoid the brotherhood-cures-bigotry trope that plagues so many period films about cross-racial friendship. King isn't a thematic device to cure the white man's prejudice; he's a buoyant aspiring entrepreneur with a dangerous blind spot for white racial resentment. Cookie, for his part, is a man with race privilege, yet an outcast, exceptional in his humility and curiosity. When Cookie moves into his new companion's tiny cabin, the two men's instant closeness feels so natural that you don't question it.
So where does the cow come in? Cookie and King realize that to start a business, you need "capital, leverage, or a crime." They have no choice but crime. A British landowner (Toby Jones) has imported the territory's first cow to supply cream for his proper British tea. Our two protagonists repeatedly sneak onto his property by night, and Cookie whips up some batter and sells fried cakes in the morning.
But the push to colonize the territory has brought in old-world wealth and the will to defend it with violence. The cow, with her certified European lineage, represents capital, whiteness, and Western notions of property and civilization. Yet, in that magical way of animals on film, the cow is also just a cow, a feeling creature that finds herself in an alien world.
Immersed in the textures of the everyday, Reichardt has made a movie where everything feels primally alive. There's nostalgia, not for some fantasized pioneering ethos, but for the undiminished wilderness. In this environment, King and Cookie's friendship answers another instinctual need: companionship. One word of advice: Don't wait to stream this one. You need to sit still in a theater and watch King build a fire in real time for that last shot of the film to break your heart.