The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘First Cow’ is a transcendent and subtly consciousness-altering frontier parable

Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro in “First Cow.” (Allyson Riggs/A24 Films)
(4 stars)

To watch a Kelly Reichardt movie is to enter a kind of trance. Over a quietly extraordinary 25-year career, which includes bona fide masterpieces like “Old Joy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” Reichardt has formed a visual and aural language all her own, a symbolic system rooted in nature, silence, steadily propulsive movement and discreet character study that upends viewers’ expectations, and ultimately, their entire cinematic experience. We might go into a Kelly Reichardt movie thinking we’ll be told a story, but we emerge with our consciousness subtly and radically altered.

Reichardt’s new film “First Cow,” indeed tells a story — a ripping good yarn, actually — while it retunes the sensibilities of spectatorship. On its face, this simple tale, set in the Oregon territory in the early 19th century, couldn’t be more fable-like, up to and including the majestic, if not literally magical bovine creature at its center. But, like most of Reichardt’s films, this one contains multitudes. We meet Cookie (John Magaro in a soulful, wary performance) when he is in the wilderness with a bunch of unruly beaver trappers, his gentle temperament at odds with their coarse, alpha-male aggression. Then Cookie meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant eager to find his fortune in a land of mythically endless possibility but already being organized into a rigid class and caste system. (“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King Lu says prophetically.) Setting up housekeeping just outside the Royal West Pacific Trading Post, Cookie and King Lu embark on the kind of scheme that either builds empires or ends in tears, their idealism tempered by cruel realities already coalescing around ideas of race, capitalism, manifest destiny and manhood itself.

And yes, there is a cow in “First Cow,” a gorgeous, brown-eyed creature imported to the settlement by the overweening Chief Factor, played by Toby Jones with just the right mix of imperiousness and insecurity. Reichardt’s most ardent fans won’t be surprised that her affinity for animals (especially dogs) extends to the latest installment of her oeuvre, which continues to explore her cardinal themes and deepen her most fruitful collaborations. This is the fifth Reichardt film written by Jon Raymond, who wrote the novel “The Half-Life” on which it is based; and it continues their mutual fascination with excavating Oregon and its history. In some ways, “First Cow” could be considered a prequel to 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” which chronicled the journey of Eastern settlers through the state’s forbidding high desert. “First Cow” explores the creation of the ideals they were chasing before they were formed into an ideology: The trading post is a cosmopolitan, polyglot place, filled with immigrants from around the globe and tended to by members of native tribes who are already being dispersed, marginalized and forcibly assimilated.

And, like “Meek’s Cutoff,” “First Cow” has been exquisitely shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who once again uses a 4:3 aspect ratio to give the action an archaic, squared-off frame. In the previous film, Reichardt noted that the tighter field of vision subverted the expanses of classic Westerns to reflect the point of view of the settlers themselves, who couldn’t see past their own personal horizons; here, it gives Cookie and King Lu’s life together both intimacy and painterly beauty. In contrast to the verticality of the similarly mud-soaked “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” with its scaffolding and soaring ambitions, “First Cow” is adamantly horizontal. Reichardt sets her sights low, the better to capture her hard-scrabbling protagonists and their humble struggles against the spiny backdrop of the pine trees that threaten to engulf them (not to mention the equally imposing men trying to make their own more violent way). For Cookie and King Lu, dreams are tender things to be nurtured; for their cohorts, they can only be realized by seizing them by force.

Accompanied by a gentle guitar and mandolin score by William Tyler, “First Cow” isn’t a happy movie — in fact, it’s often brutal, and the present-day image that bookends the story suggests it won’t have an optimistic ending. Still, nestled within Reichardt’s jaundiced portrait of greed, racism and nativism at its most dishonest and chauvinistic, Cookie and King Lu’s friendship stands as a reminder that America’s most pitiless trajectory didn’t necessarily have to be that way. As a parable of Bressonian purity, “First Cow” offers a clear-eyed assessment of how we got here; as a magnificent, moving example of Reichardt’s uncompromising vision, it doesn’t just deliver a critique, but transcendence.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 122 minutes.