Director Kelly Reichardt approaches this historical material with her singular, gentle, observant style, putting an emphasis on pairs and on inequality. It's a period piece, but it's also quite relevant. Based on a novel and co-written by Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote or co-wrote most of Reichardt's earlier movies), First Cow seems to find its pace based on Cookie's gentle kindness (he even helps right a struggling salamander) and King Lu's soft-spokenness. Their domestic scenes together -- cleaning, chopping wood, and especially cooking -- have a quiet, lyrical, tactile quality, almost like poetry. The film's music, which is often diegetic (shown on screen), effectively adds to the mood.
But Reichardt also establishes menace and threat early on in First Cow, from the present-day prologue (featuring Alia Shawkat) to the thuggish trappers, a bar fight, and even bear-like settlers admiring Cookie's clean boots. This constant imbalance keeps the movie feeling tense throughout. But, of course, the real point is the way that Reichardt depicts the unraveling of the American dream, how the gulf between the haves and have nots is often insurmountable. Yet the movie -- which shares themes with Reichardt's earlier films Old Joy and Meek's Cutoff -- is still beautiful and satisfying, perhaps because of the way it constantly strives forward. It opens with a quote from poet William Blake: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." As long as we connect and keep going, hope is still possible.