Art and Film: Kelly Reichardt’s eye for grace

John Magaro as Cookie Figowitz.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In the 1820s, not long after Lewis and Clark blazed the Oregon Trail, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, a white orphan from Maryland who had been indentured to a Boston baker and is now a cook, and King-Lu, an itinerant Chinese dreamer on the run, are en route to Fort Tillicum, a settlement in the Oregon Territory, with daunting prospects. That’s the setting for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, one of her finest movies, which like all of her others softly illuminates the flawed integrity and uncelebrated grace of humble, fleeting people who might otherwise be overlooked. As in Meek’s Cutoff, her brilliant revisionist western, she takes fond note of their off-kilter role in building a grand and brutal America. The result is an immersively intimate and nuanced film – at once introverted in its tone and historical in its sweep, never artificial and durably moving.

Living rough in shacks along the Columbia River, Cookie and King-Lu (John Magaro and Orion Lee, as naturalistic as old pals) see a sufficiency of wealth among the fur trappers around them and arrive at a way to take advantage of it. Cookie learned well from his former master and makes delicious deep-fried biscuits called “oily cakes,” and King-Lu is a born entrepreneur. The trappers, bilious and pugnacious, hunger for something special to brighten their days. They eat all the cakes Cookie and King-Lu can sell, paying more for a cake than a shot of whisky. But the cakes call for milk and the only cow around belongs to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones, spot-on), a fatuous and willful British overseer, so Cookie and King-Lu secretly milk the cow at night. Although the Chief Factor too loves the biscuits, their purveyors are technically thieves and face frontier justice. But whatever their mortal fate, they live on in the bustle of commerce enshrined in the ambivalently majestic opening shot of present-day barge traffic on the river.

Scene from First Cow

In its casual grit and its subdued exaltation of the daily grind and the inherent contingency of human fortune, First Cow – which is based on Jonathan Raymond’s 2005 novel The Half Life – can feel like an episode of Deadwood penned by Beckett. And as a chronicle of early American capitalism and the tenuous audacity of free enterprise, it is in the lineage of Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, itself a groundbreaking revisionist western. Yet what sticks in your heart – and your throat – is the bond between Cookie and King-Lu born of a shared practical need and the quiet determination to team up and fulfill it. Incidentally but not insignificantly, they succeed without trampling on the Native Americans with whom the white settlers awkwardly coexist. In a narrow sense, the movie is a paean to small business and a rejection of any putative creed of individual or collective ruthlessness. More philosophically, Reichardt suggests that even capitalism is nourished and ultimately sustained by friendship. That may be its saving grace.

First Cow, directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt, distributed by A24.

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Art and Film: Kelly Reichardt’s stoic women
Art and Film: Ghost as witness
Art and Film: The life and death of a cinephilic boomtown
2012 Whitney Biennial: Long on video and film, short on painting

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