To describe the perfect final shot of “First Cow,” Kelly Reichardt’s marvelous new picture, would not constitute a spoiler, exactly — at least not in the traditionally understood sense. Like quite a few movies, this one basically foreshadows, without entirely giving away, its own ending. The story begins with a grim discovery somewhere in roughly present-day Oregon, then rewinds about two centuries to the less settled 1820s, infusing a tale of the Old West with retroactive glimmers of suspense, dread and tragedy.
I’m not generally fond of this kind of framing device, which feels like the narrative equivalent of dangling a carrot — as if the journey would be less interesting if we didn’t already know the destination. But Reichardt, who has spent her career resisting the obvious, sidesteps this trap with her usual sturdy, unfussy artistry. Even if you think you know how this story is going to end, you may be surprised by how much she entrusts to the viewer’s imagination. Compelling history, like compelling historical fiction, is always more than a simple record of what happened to whom.
And while a great deal does happen in “First Cow” — enough to refute the persistent mischaracterization of Reichardt as some sort of obscure indie minimalist — it is more than just a gripping yarn of crime, capitalism and camaraderie in the early 19th century. Adapted by Reichardt and her frequent writing partner, Jon Raymond, from the latter’s 2004 novel, “The Half Life,” the movie is above all an exquisite commingling of texture and atmosphere. The particulars of the production and costume design — the tin cups and wooden houses, the smudges of dirt on the men’s raggedy shirts — are too lived-in to feel like mere period detailing. Something similar could be said of the faces we see, belonging to actors like John Keating, Ewen Bremner and the late Rene Auberjonois, who seem as endemic to this world as all its mud, leaves and shadows.
We enter that world alongside Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), a gentle-eyed, soft-spoken man in his 30s who works as a cook (and has earned the nickname “Cookie”) for a party of fur trappers traveling through the Oregon Territory. His Boston-bred culinary skills are poorly served by this overgrown woodland, where there is little more than berries and mushrooms to supplement their dwindling rations, and where his hangry employers mete out no shortage of abuse. But Magaro’s soulful, unassuming performance conveys the bearing of a man who is devoted to his vocation and practices it as best he can even under these unforgiving conditions.
He is also a figure of instinctive decency and compassion. One night he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, hiding in the brush from some tough men on his tail. But even as he shivers naked in the cold, King-Lu is clearly sharp and resourceful, with a talent for slipping into the background that emboldens him to take more risks than others might. Some time after Cookie gives him food and shelter and helps him on his way, the two men will reunite at a shantytown where King-Lu has a small hut. There, they become roommates and strike up a friendship that eventually becomes a working partnership.
That partnership is set in motion by the appearance of the first dairy cow in the Oregon Territory, the property of a wealthy, airily pretentious British landowner, Chief Factor (a superbly nuanced Toby Jones). The arrival of this magnificent creature, chewing her cud with majestic bemusement as she floats downriver on a barge, is for Chief Factor both a symbol of status and an omen of progress — a proud declaration that this tough terrain can be tamed into submission and eventual prosperity. For poor men like Cookie and King-Lu, the cow represents an opportunity, a chance to stake their own modest claim on the American Dream.
Aside from noting that you should probably not see “First Cow” on an empty stomach (or without plans to hit up a bakery afterward), I won’t say too much about the clever scheme in which Cookie and King-Lu slyly enlist the animal’s services. Suffice to say the plot’s every unfolding development is a deft and delightful surprise, and it may be the most suspenseful and entertaining demonstration yet of Reichardt’s rigorous attention to detail — her patient, genuine and remarkably cinematic fascination with the workings of process and minutiae. All of which makes “First Cow” both a captivating underdog story and a brilliant demonstration of the pluck and ingenuity of American enterprise in action.
The relationship between Cookie and King-Lu is precisely that between artisanal expertise and business acumen, between the mastery of a difficult craft and the entrepreneurial spirit needed to leverage it. (It helps that King-Lu is both the tactical brains of the operation and, as a putative foreigner, the one everyone ignores and underestimates.) But while both men are impossible not to root for, Reichardt regards them as she does all her striving, desperate characters: with clear-eyed affection, yes, but also an absence of cheap triumphalism or uplift. Their venture is not destined to end well, and not all its participants benefit in equal measure.
The title character is played by a wide-eyed brown cow named Evie, who, no less than Magaro and Lee, gives a performance of understated wit and sly gravity. Some of the movie’s most quietly touching exchanges take place between the cow and Cookie, who makes friendly, respectful conversation as he helps himself to her milk. Life hasn’t been especially kind to either of them. The tenderness of their rapport is echoed, though also complicated, by Cookie’s bond with King-Lu, with whom he shares a platonic yet unconventional domestic arrangement and a deep desire to forge their own improbable success story.
No familiarity with Reichardt’s earlier work is necessary to get caught up in that story. Still, those who do know the director’s heavily Oregon-focused oeuvre may find that “First Cow” functions as a kind of greatest-hits guide — or, by dint of its 1820s setting, an origin story. The prologue carries an echo of “Wendy and Lucy,” while the study of masculine friendship may remind you of the world-weary buddies from “Old Joy.” The Old West setting naturally evokes “Meek’s Cutoff,” and as he did on that 2010 western, the cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt shoots the landscape in a nearly square aspect ratio that encourages close-quarters intimacy rather than panoramic splendor.
Long mythologized as a land of promise and plenty, the West is here reclaimed as a zone of uncertainty, danger and profound scarcity, where the myth of Manifest Destiny is eclipsed, and even mocked, by hard reality. Chief Factor is a pompous fool with all the trappings of a white man’s success, including a wife (Lily Gladstone, the revelation of Reichardt’s “Certain Women”) who is one of several Native American characters hovering, quiet but unignorable, on the periphery of the story. A visiting captain (Scott Shepherd) comes a-sneering, setting off a brief aristocratic pissing contest and throwing the story’s painful inequities into even harsher relief.
Reichardt’s film playfully jabs at those divisions, but it is too honest to pretend that they do not exist. The deep, lingering ache of “First Cow” comes from the realization that, even in a world still in the process of being formed, its cruel divisions have already been carved so deep. Nearly everyone here has next to nothing, and what little they do have — a shiny pair of boots, a fistful of silver, an oily cake, a rare friend — can be all too easily whisked away.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles