First Cow is a necessary portrait of platonic male affection

This film offers a glimpse at what manhood looked like two centuries ago

First Cow.
(Image credit: Allyson Riggs/A24)

First Cow opens with lovely poetry from William Blake: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." The line precedes the film's opening sequence, where an unnamed woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog (because what would a Kelly Reichardt production be without a dog?) stumble upon and unearth a pair of human skeletons buried a stone's throw from a rivershore in modern day Oregon. Blake's words take on dual meaning: Friendship might be home and hearth for man, but it's also his tomb.

Given that the bones belong to 1800s frontiersmen who'd rather be anywhere than the frontier, the implications of the contrast feel more tender than they do morbid. Deducing whose remains the woman has found in the film's present is a simple task. It's the questions of how they got there, and why, that Reichardt refuses to answer upfront.

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