Kelly Reichardt is one of the few special filmmakers who can really express the wonder of our physical world. She’s become a sort of poet of the Pacific Northwest, understanding exactly how the land vibrates at a particular frequency, with its own rhythms and personality.
Her latest, called First Cow, is arguably the best movie of the year, and is set in the 19th-century Oregon territory, when rough men roamed the land trapping fur and dreaming of gold. We meet Cookie Figowitz, a cook traveling with some of those trappers, who comes upon a Chinese man named King Lu, who’s hiding in the forest from some men pursuing him. Neither Cookie nor King is particularly rough themselves, though the fact they’ve both made it this far should say something, and they find a connection through their humanity. They exchange ideas about their simple, modest dreams, we learn Cookie is a talented baker, and the two begin to sell fried cakes at a nearby encampment. The only problem is, they have no milk, until they come upon the lone cow in the area, owned by a rich Englishman, and they start to steal its milk at night.
We know from the very beginning of the film that this will not end well for the two men, though we come to love them and desperately want them to be ok. And, somehow, Reichardt finds a way for both things to be true—that is, we know the two do end up where they must, in the place we all ultimately end, but we’re also spared that reality. That this contradiction can exist is appropriate, given the contradictions Reichardt shows us in the Oregon forest—it’s at once crowded and isolating; it’s lush and verdant, but we know death approaches.
First Cow is a masterpiece, quietly bursting with kindness and life, with strangeness, frustration, and sadness and joy. Kelly Reichardt has a rare understanding of the subtle pulse of our world, and how it resonates in every piece of our lives.