Tales of masculine companionship often invite unrequited feelings of anguish—suppressed bonds that involve more than a gun. The American West, whose background typically includes hard men made for a harder land (you fill in the euphemism) involves latent male friendships bordering on more. Rarely are they represented as openly charming and comforting, except here. Set in the American northwest, a 19th century tale of male friendship takes shape in Kelly Reichardt’s simple but touching First Cow.
Partly based on Jon Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, the film initially sees Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) collecting mushrooms through the forests of Oregon. Originally from Maryland, he’s there as a cook for a traveling band of fur trappers. However, during his foraging he discovers a naked stranger named King-Lu (Orion Lee) hiding underneath the ferns. Lu is on the run from Russians, who are also in the area, after killing one of their companions. Cookie helps the renegade with a place to stay, his tent, and food. But later King-Lu disappears.
Some time passes before he meets the strange man again. This time, in a shanty town populated by rowdy men in filthy conditions. They quickly develop a friendship, though they appear to be polar opposites. Lu is always looking for an edge, a quick buck. While Cookie couldn’t be nicer, he’s an enabler. However, they become business partners when a cow—the first cow in Oregon—is bought by a rich British trader (Toby Jones). In a land with little livestock, the milk the bovine provides exacts a price richer than money and bartered items. Cookie and Lu take advantage of the limited supply, milking the cow to create “oily cakes” topped with honey to sell to the highest bidder among the inhabitants of the outpost.
The idiosyncratic Western provides varying shades of the period, especially with regards to the Native Americans who exist on the periphery. Driven off their land, within Reichardt’s meditative film, they occupy a mystical element that reaches through William Tyler’s cheerful but introspective score. Moreover, her picture provides a tableau of characters that go beyond the normal cliches of the genre. There’s no town drunk nor rustlers. No outlaw nor quick gun. No, the outpost is composed of desperate outsiders thrown together with the hope of striking it rich. For that reason, a melancholy pervades this darkly funny film.
Furthermore, the narrative Reichardt and Raymond provide makes for a hypnotic yet simple extrapolation of the early-American frontier. No system of laws exists, no formal courts, and no companionship. Except Cookie and King-Lu have each other, and their symbiotic relationship of introvert and extrovert, receptively, allows them to discover a modicum of wealth and stability. And no matter the thoughtless dangers they throw themselves into, their pure awareness of each other’s feelings in a cold and unforgiving frontier is a warm demonstration of the powers of friendship—making Reichardt’s First Cow as sweet as Cookie’s oily cakes.