As I reflect on Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” which opens in select theaters this weekend, I can’t help but smile on my “first Reichardt” experience, “Certain Women” and the audience reaction to that film. It is important to set the stage for this experience in that I was not a member of the press, so it was a general audience screening of paid admissions. If I remember correctly, I was the only male in the room, and I was the youngest.

We get to the end of that screening, the house lights come up, and one of the audience members verbally says, “what the [expletive] did we just watch?” I had to chuckle because in our homogenized world we live in today, where things are planned up the kazoo, we don’t know how to react to certain situations, or life without boundaries, which is a topic that Reichardt explores once again in “First Cow.”

Her latest film, an adaptation of “The Half Life” by Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Reichardt is set in late 19th century Oregon. The film opens on a meager John Magaro as Cookie Figowitz, a chef who understand the land that surrounds a fur trapping company he works for. Cookie is wise in his ways, but he cannot relate to the company that surrounds him, often leading them to tease him or to chastise him for not providing better food options.

Eventually, he finds a source of fish, making the trappers happy. But we get the sense that he is not satisfied; that he desperately wants more. Magaro’s performance is subtle at first, like a compass stuck in a magnetic field.

That is until he meets King Lu (Orion Lee). A man bold enough to make his way on his own, he convinces Cookie to take a chance, to broaden his strokes. A pastry chef by training, Cookie finds his inner voice by bringing pastries to the frontiersmen, eventually attracting the attention of a British overlord, a deliciously pompous and arrogant Chief Factor played by Toby Jones. Desirous of the pastries that remind him of home, Chief Factor asks Cookie if he can make a special kind of pastry, one that requires fruit and has to be done in a certain way. Cookie of course says that he can, if he had the right fruit.

Reichardt is genius in that she puts Cookie on a higher position than the Chief, allowing him to assert his knowledge of the local area, while taking away suspicion the Chief might have about how Cookie is getting his desperately needed dairy to make the delights that have taken the town by storm.

Cookie could not have achieved this without King Lu’s encouragement, and his free spirit even as we get the idea that King is just as trapped as Cookie is, and coincidentally, so too is the cow.

There are subtle ways in which Cookie’s antics are given up to Chief Factor, which forces Cookie and King Lu to flee; a quaint life in deep in the woods, away from much of civilization. The trappings of the forest render their situation even more precarious: Cookie’s common sense should have kicked in long before the later events in the film took place, but there was such joy on Cookie’s face and in Magaro’s performance that you could feel the character’s disappointment at the fact that he is as trapped as he was at the beginning of the film, only under a different set of circumstances.

The first hour of the film is used to develop those minute nuances in Cookie’s character, to establish the relationship between he and King Lu; some of the development is intentionally slow to give us time to feel as trapped in their world as they are. It can make the first act seem unnecessarily labored. On reflection though, I didn’t act as if “what the [expletive] did I just watch.” I rather relished in the fact that the characters recognized their own struggles, made the most of what they had and while they were not resigned to their fates, they accepted them head on because their relationship as friends sustained them far beyond the forest.

“First Cow” whispers in our ears to reach beyond our limitations, much the same as the wind touches the trees, shaking leaves, drawing us in. At the center of it all are two men who needed each other when they least expected it and in ways neither thought was possible for the other. Kelly Reichardt is a master at expanding our limitations.

  • First Cow