Kelly Reichardt's First Cow masterfully turns the Western genre on its head

A five-star review

John Magaro as Cookie Figowitz in 'First Cow'
John Magaro as Cookie Figowitz in 'First Cow'

It's a simple story about friendship and hope. It's a gently revisionist Western that literally pushes the clichés of the genre out the door in favor of reconsidering stereotypes of masculinity and reworking the fables of "frontiers." It's a softly savage deconstruction of the violence and the ironies of the American dream. It's one of the most astonishing movies I've seen this year.

Every frame of First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's latest masterpiece, oozes contradiction. Warmth and compassion is constantly overshadowed by a terrible suspense working on multiple levels, and all of that is in turn haunted by the slow burn of injustice on scales unseen by the characters. But it's obvious – and enraging – to us looking from the future back to the 1820s.

Cook and baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) has journeyed from back East to the Pacific Northwest, initially arriving with a band of beaver trappers and gold hunters; these are reflexively aggressive men the soft-spoken Cookie cannot wait to be done with. An act of kindness and a chance second meeting cements a friendship with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee).

There is never any unpleasant tension in the relationship between Cookie and King-Lu, as a lesser movie might have attempted, asking us to wait, perhaps, to see how King-Lu will take advantage of the good-natured and sensitive Cookie. Instead, Reichardt meanders through the gentle domestic routine the men hit upon, making a home that's as pleasant as possible in this hardscrabble place with few comforts or luxuries.

First Cow takes its (bitter)sweet time for a while. It's as if Reichardt is replicating the slower pace of life of two centuries ago: entire days seem to pass, consumed by nothing more than simple housekeeping chores and daydreaming about how life could be better. And then Cookie and King-Lu hit upon a scheme to make a little money and truly take advantage of the opportunities that this new world offers. As poor men, they recognize that the deck is stacked against them, and they decide that cheating a bit is the only way to win. Their plan involves making sneaky use of the first milk cow to have arrived in the territory, belonging to the chief factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy and casually cruel man who fancies himself sophisticated. They're taking a dangerous risk, but as King-Lu points out, anything that could possibly be worth doing for the likes of them is going to be risky.

Sketched in the background of Cookie and King-Lu's venture are hints and suggestions of where the slo-mo invasion of this lush land will lead: the beaver with its prized pelt, once almost absurdly abundant, is growing more sparse; a few Native characters bring color both literal and figurative to the white man's world, but we know the eventual fate of their culture. And always in the foreground is the precariousness of what the men are attempting. There is no rugged independence here, no taming of nature, no triumph of civilization – none of the mythologizing that has warped our understanding of American history. There are no heroes in any sense of the word. There is only tragedy all around.