Typically, the heroes of Westerns are rugged cowboys, bombastic outlaws, or noble sheriffs. They are men with a sneer on their lips and a gun on their hip. They are power fantasies that make the Wild West seem like a grand adventure, gladly glossing over the mundane menaces of living outside civil society. Like where is a man supposed to get a cup of milk for quality baking? That First Cow addresses this very question is just one of the extraordinary ways writer/director Kelly Reichardt sets her film apart from a genre that has long defined machismo. Instead of offering another tale of grizzled cowpokes with stony visages, she delivers a deeply poignant and poetic story of male bonding, companionship, and love on the edge of civilization.
Reichardt reteams here with her writing partner Jonathan Raymond (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves, and Meek’s Cutoff) to adapt his novel The Half Life. Set in the great American wilderness that would be Oregon, their latest collaboration centers on an unexpected friendship forged in ruthless terrain. Forget the high plains, vast deserts, and Monument Valley; here lay thick forest, hiding beavers sought by trappers, outlaws sought by bounty hunters, and a kind baker on the hunt for edible mushrooms.
Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) couldn’t intimidate if he tried. Precariously swaddled in ill-fitting, rumpled clothes, he cuts a humble figure as he tiptoes through fields, forests, or bustling settlements. His beard is as full as soft as his smile, complimenting eyes that glisten with cautious optimism. He’s a joke to the trappers he’s traveling with, but to one would-be entrepreneur Cookie is a diamond in the rough.
Rare good fortune throws Cookie in the path of King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who is deeply down on his luck–unarmed, unclothed, and chased by vengeful gunslingers. Risking his place in the trapper’s crew, Cookie feeds and shelters King-Lu, who’s dapper and poised when not huddled and hiding. So begins a beautiful bond that leads the two into an unusual criminal escapade. In a meek shack a mile from a burgeoning colony, they share their lives, workload, and dreams. Without a word, one will gather firewood, while the other sweeps the floor. They fall into a harmonious domesticity with ease, and it’s a joy to watch their simple pleasure in each other’s company.
But this shack is too small for big dreamers with ambitions of founding a hotel/bakery in San Francisco, where the money is good and the weather is warm. To get there, they just need some startup cash. When the local bigwig (Toby Jones) has the first cow shipped into the territory, this clever pair has a big idea. In the dark of the night, they creep to the cow’s pasture and milk it; then Cookie makes “oily cakes,” donuts round, golden brown, and drizzled in honey. To a modern audience, this may seem a simple treat. But displayed against the muck, the mud, and cold of this Oregon wilderness, those orbs of dough and sweet seem a decadent luxury. Under King-Lu’s marketing strategy, these sell like–well–hotcakes. But as our heroes find financial success, they risk having their criminal recipe found out.
Two frontiersmen steal milk to make their American Dream with donuts. It almost sounds like a parody of an indie film pitch, yet Reichardt strikes a perfect pitch throughout the film’s unfurling. With a muted color pallet, restrained performance style, and grimy production design, she doesn’t shy away from the roughness of this reality. She uses it as a dark foil to set off the brightness of Cookie and King-Lu. They are the film’s whimsy, relishing in little victories and simple pleasures with a contagious delight that never veers into comically broad. There is no mugging for the camera or slick music cues like so many heist movies. Still, Reichardt recognizes the ridiculousness of this seemingly low-stakes heist. There’s an intoxicating blend of tension and silliness as King-Lu awkwardly scales as tree to play look out, while Cookie sweet-talks the cow, and even offers her sincere condolences about the passing of her bull “husband.”
Watching these low-key hilarious hijinks unfold, you begin to realize Reichardt is simply displaying how all big dreams can seem a bit ridiculous early on. And so, we root for these sweet scoundrels, even though the genre expectations and the film’s opening give us little reason for hope.
All told, First Cow is a magnificent yet modest work of tenderness. Reichardt and Raymond offer a surprising and subversive story that celebrates the gentle men (not gentlemen) of the Wild West. She establishes a pace that’s slow but inviting, as if we’re on a picturesque stroll together. She trusts her actors to create stirring emotion with little moments of quiet intimacy, huddled over frying pans and chuckling in cozy corners. Magaro shines with a sweet softness and a quiet confidence that could make Cookie a patron saint of non-toxic masculinity. By contrast, Lee might seem stern or even cagey. But over the course of the narrative, we see King-Lu warm to Cookie, sharing poetic pontifications and spinning a fantasy future they could build together.
Ultimately, Reichardt gifts us with the blossoming of a deep human connection set against a brutal backdrop of conquest, pride, and greed. And in this, she offers a complicated portrait of America — its virtues, vices, and the culture war between the two that values cowboys over bakers.