The movies made by Kelly Reichardt are small and wondrous things. Elusive and allusive, they tell stories about average people that widen in the mind to become resonant tales of struggle, poverty, inequality, and the saving mysteries of human connection. They don’t look political, but they most certainly are.
So “Old Joy” (2006) was about two old friends taking a hike but it was also about the death of the progressive dream. “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) starred Michelle Williams as a young woman on the road but was actually about the ease with which a person can fall through the cracks in America. And Reichardt’s new film, “First Cow,” is about — you guessed it — a cow. But it’s also about the two distinct visions, one rhapsodic and the other rapacious, that founded this country and that fight it out to this very day.
Set in Oregon Territory in the 1820s, “First Cow” is a picaresque that gradually deepens, and at its center is a most unlikely duo. “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a shy, goodhearted European immigrant who has a way with a recipe even at this bitter outer fringe of civilization. King Lu (Orion Lee) is a Chinese laborer on the run from unspecified misadventures involving angry Russians.
Cookie is naive, a natural victim; Lu is quick on his feet, a born survivor. They are thrown together when the cook deserts his employers, a crudely degenerate group of trappers, and helps hide the fugitive. Settling into a broken-down shack on the outskirts of what might, in a decade or so, be called a town, they become a sort of couple, united by their status as outsiders and disinterest in plunder. Still, a man’s got to eat, and men have to eat, and so they come up with a plan to sell Cookie’s “oily cakes” — primordial donuts, more or less — to the miners and trappers and soldiers of the village.
Why do the oily cakes taste so good? A secret ingredient: Milk. Where does the milk come from? A cow. Who owns the cow? The local Mr. Big, a diminutive government official called the Chief Factor and played with delicious penny-ante hauteur by the British actor Toby Jones. His cow is the first in the territory and the pride of the Chief Factor’s life, probably more so than his native wife (Lily Gladstone).
Would the Chief Factor be pleased to know that Cookie and King Lu are hopping his fence each night to “share” the cow’s bounty? Not in the least. The cow is his, so the milk is his, isn’t it? Or does Cookie’s art transmute the milk into something like a community communion wafer? “First Cow” evolves into a semi-comic fable about ingenuity versus ownership, the have-nots versus the haves, even capitalism versus socialism, yet Reichardt never lifts her finger off the pulse of this place, these people, these woods, this history. “First Cow” is as confident and organic as storytelling gets — as rough-edged as it is in style, it’s absurdly rich in ripple effect.
The movie’s of a piece with shaggy recent westerns like “The Sisters Brothers” and “Slow West,” and it owes a debt of gratitude as well to the work of Robert Altman, especially the classic “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” (That “First Cow” marks the final appearance of Altman regular and “McCabe” costar Rene Auberjonois is a lovely poetic touch.)
Reichardt is working here with longtime collaborators, which may explain the film’s naturalism and ease. Adapting his 2004 novel “The Half-Life” — half of it, anyway — co-scripter Jonathan Raymond continues a fruitful working relationship with Reichardt that goes back to “Old Joy.” Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt captures the lush chaos of the untamed landscape with the same finesse he brought to the desert vistas of “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010). Gladstone was the best thing in “Certain Women” and actress Alia Shawkat, who has a scene at the film’s beginning that makes sad, perfect sense at its end, worked with Reichardt in “Night Moves” (2013).
That sense of common cause extends to the onscreen duo of Cookie and King Lu, who establish a domestic intimacy, complete with inside jokes, that comes to seem intensely precious amid the entropy of empire-building that surrounds them. Reichardt opens “First Cow” with a quote from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Other people are where we live, in other words. The movie says this might be our national secret, buried beneath strife and conquest until it’s ready to be uncovered.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on his novel. Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones. At Kendall Square. 121 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language, bovine perspiration)