During my freshman year of college, I enrolled in an introduction to creative writing course. Each student was tasked with writing their own short fiction throughout the semester. My stories, of course, were terrible. But what that class did impart on me was a love of the form. Writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore and Anton Chekhov — among others  — taught me how a narrative can use minimal action for maximum impact. 

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt distills that essence into each of her films. Her plots can typically be summed up in just a few sentences, and the number of characters appearing in them can be counted on a single hand. However, her themes are deeply rooted in Americana — crafting small-scale dramas to speak about everything from colonialism to feminism to societal revolt. They’re powerful parables that, thanks to Reichardt’s understated approach, never veer toward preachiness. 

First Cow, available for digital purchase on demand starting Friday (July 10), is Reichardt’s seventh film and also one of her strongest. Returning to the 19th-century Oregon setting of her most acclaimed film, 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, the movie follows Cookie (John Magaro) as he at first travels with a group of fur traders in search of gold and valuables in what is then mostly untapped American territory. There are few females in the film, and the men in Cookie’s group are caked in dirt and break into meaningless fist fights at a moment’s notice. 

Cookie, on the other hand, offers stark contrast to these virile, violent men around him. Magaro’s sweet nature and gentle performance mirrors the tone of First Cow. While the fur trappers hunt and strip the land of its beauty, Cookie gathers berries and mushrooms — acquiring knowledge instead of destruction. 

Things change dramatically upon the introduction of two characters: King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant separated from his party who ends up forming a tenuous business partnership with Cookie, and a cow. The cow, owned by a wealthy businessman (Toby Jones), is the first cow to arrive in Oregon and carries large significance for both the characters and the setting at large. It represents the beginning of economic change in the country. It also presents a business opportunity for Cookie and Lu: in the middle of the night, the two sneak onto the businessman’s land to harvest cow’s milk for Cookie (an expert chef) to bake sweet, oily pastries to sell the next day. 

The milking scenes get to the heart of Cookie’s character; he coos and whispers comforting sentiments to the cow — whose litter and female companion didn’t survive the  journey to Oregon — like it was a heartbroken friend. “I heard what happened to your wife. A terrible, terrible thing.” Despite the fact he’s stealing, Cookie is perhaps too tender to survive in such a ruthless environment.

Cookie and Lu’s treats are an immediate success, and Jones’ landowner ironically becomes one of the pair’s most loyal customers. These pastries, and the pair’s budding baking enterprise, becomes a metaphor for capitalism as a whole. It may delight and benefit plenty of people, but it’s nonetheless built on the misfortune of others. That other in this case happens to be a rather unsympathetic socialite, yet the threat of discovery masterfully shifts First Cow from a patient two-hander (well, three if you count the cow) into a low-key thriller. 

“History hasn’t been here yet,” Lu remarks to Cookie as they trek through a forest seldom seen by humans. It’s a brief line, spoken like a casual aside, but it’s hugely revealing of what the film’s trying to do. This is America’s history unfolding before us, and Reichardt makes it all seem effortless, packing a tremendous amount of meaning into the smallest moments. First Cow is simultaneously a breezy hang-out film about two friends, a stunning capitalist allegory and a tightly crafted thriller. And it’s the best film of 2020 so far.