Kelly Reichardt’s newest film, “First Cow,” calls to mind the work of 19th century landscape artists like Albert Bierstadt or Frederic Edwin Church, whose tactile depiction of each leaf and shard of sunlight is so engrossing that it’s a jolt when you finally notice a couple of tiny figures somewhere in the background, dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of nature.
Most of us have to visit major museums for this experience. But Reichardt paints her own breathtaking landscape and then zooms in on the miniscule humans just trying to survive amidst the greater workings of the world.
She is among the select few modern filmmakers who’ve earned the term “auteur,” and fans will find her personal signatures throughout the film. It’s the fifth of her seven features set in the Pacific Northwest, opens with a scene that brings to mind “Wendy and Lucy,” evokes “Old Joy” in its close look at male friendship and, like “Meek’s Cutoff,” examines the dark edge of America’s Manifest Destiny. But while it fits perfectly into a larger framework, it also stands alone in rare, iconoclastic beauty.
After a brief, contemporary prologue that haunts every frame to follow, we find ourselves in the Oregon Territory around 1820. The sensitive Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro, “Orange Is the New Black”) is a soft-spoken Northeasterner working for fur trappers who regularly mistreat him, while King-Lu (Orion Lee, “Informer”), a Chinese immigrant, is greeted with suspicion by nearly everyone he meets.
When Cookie helps King-Lu out of hiding — he’s being chased by Russian trappers — they form an instant link as fellow outsiders. Together, they find a home in a broken-down shack on the outskirts of a rough trading post. Everyone there is looking for the 19th-century version of a lottery ticket: Gold is the goal, but a pile of beaver pelts or even a steady job would be nice.
King-Lu and Cookie find their luck changing when a pompous landowner (Toby Jones), brings in the region’s first cow. Every night he and his staff, made up primarily of Native Americans, shut down his big house and go to bed. And then Cookie and King-Lu sneak out of their shack onto his property to milk his cow.
Cookie uses the milk to make biscuits and fry cakes that King-Lu sells with speed and finesse. And for a while, their plan goes beautifully. They even earn enough to anticipate the next step up the capitalist ladder: a move to San Francisco. But they can’t live off another man’s property forever, and soon the shaky lower rung on which our heroes are standing threatens to give way altogether.
Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond have loosely adapted Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life” here, and they are so in sync it’s no surprise that they also co-wrote the screenplays for “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Night Moves,” and “Meek’s Cutoff.” All of those films share a similar sense of humane melancholy, expressed within a natural world that is alternately vulnerable or impervious to the beauty and pain of interpersonal connections.
Indeed, it’s hard to decide which is more moving: the bond between the men or their as-yet-untamed surroundings. Magaro and Lee, who have more often been cast in supporting parts, carry the weight of their lead roles with lived-in confidence, while Alia Shawkat, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer and Lily Gladstone are memorable in smaller roles.
Reichardt relies on an equally solid crew for the production elements. Costume designer April Napier (“Booksmart”) and production designer Anthony Gasparro (“Certain Women”) studied texts from the era to build in authenticity, and William Tyler mixes his own soulful compositions with on-screen music (a scratchy violin here or a mouth harp there) to enhance the period feel.
But the most striking work is that of exceptional cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (who also has “Emma.” in theaters right now): He shoots the forest and surrounding land with such poetic deference that it becomes the third central character, just as expressive and exposed as Cookie and King-Lu. Where Blauvelt and Reichardt used the plains of “Meek’s Cutoff” to indicate the potential oppression of expansive space, here they shoot in the same 4:3 ratio but much lower to the ground, so we can nearly smell the dirt as well as we can hear the comforting sweep of a handmade broom or the ominous crack of every dry branch.
What gives the movie its ultimate power, though, is not the tension that comes from wondering what might happen in the forest, but from what we already know will unfurl beyond it. Reichardt and her outstanding team ensure that we are fully invested in her striving heroes and equally anxious for their promising young country, as well.