Kelly Reichardt turns to America’s pioneer past for First Cow, her latest acute observation of human behaviour. It’s based on The Half-Life, the 2004 debut novel by Jon Raymond, the Oregon author who has formed a remarkable partnership with Reichardt over the years, co-writing Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves and Old Joy. Again, they have collaborated on the screenplay here, expertly pruning back Raymond’s novel.
The film begins with a contemporary prologue as Alia Shakat’s dog-walker comes across two skeletons, when her mutt gets digging. It’s the last we see of her, a brief nod to Raymond’s parallel plot in the book which seesaws between a commune in 1980s Portland and 160 years earlier. Here, Reichardt flips back in time, putting flesh on those buried bones and hinting at why they were left together in a shallow grave.
When the narrative heads to 1820s Oregon, we meet Otis Figowitz, better known as Cookie. Played by John Magaro, Cookie has found work for some fur trappers when he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant in hiding. Fleeing from some Russians, he’s naked and alone, but Cookie doesn’t sell him out. Instead, he finds him sustenance before helping him get away.
They meet again by chance in a bar and become companions. They concoct a plan to make and sell buttermilk biscuits, from a recipe learnt by Cookie when he apprenticed as a baker in Boston. The secret ingredient is fresh milk, stolen from a bovine belonging to Toby Jones’ pretentious English landowner – the “first cow” of the region.
Jones is excellent throughout, even sampling their wares and declaring he can “taste London” without realising his own cow is essential to the operation. Inevitably, as demand for their baked goods increases, so does the risk. In this, Reichardt and Raymond have created an allegory for the American Dream, as these men are the forerunners of capitalist entrepreneurs.
First Cow is not a film that is easily read. Some scenes are shot at night, in virtual darkness, as characters make whispered exchanges. Other scenes, like the finale, draw to a close without obvious conclusion or resolution. But then this is the cinema of Reichardt, who has no wish to present easy answers to viewers. Her followers wouldn’t want it any other way.
First Cow is available in cinemas from 28 May. For more details, click here.