In the present day, Alia Shawkat walks her dog along the woods when she discovers remnants from the past that will transport the story back in the era of Oregon Country, an era of fur-trade competition between American and British companies. It’s a harsh period; settlements were scarce and the pristine environment could be deadly to those unaware of the danger. Director Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves) and her collaborator, Jonathan Raymond, present a story about the age of opportunity—where friendship and early form of American Dreams take shape—in First Cow. There’s a real cow with real milk; there are wildlife hunters; there’s an aspiring cook and an immigrant with eye for business making a couple of unlikely BFFs taking the center stage.
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Shawkat makes no further come-back in the story as First Cow first introduces the harsh environment and, especially, society of 1820s Oregon Country where bands of fur trappers would hunt for weeks in the dark woods. Otis Figowitz a.k.a. Cookie (John Magaro) is the trappers’ cook who looks too delicate for the job. While on the hunt (of course, he’s not doing the actual hunting and, instead, preparing the provisions for the hunters), he encounters King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who just killed a Russian man and fled their party. Cookie shelters Lu for a night and lets him leave the next day. It was a short encounter with bare-minimum contact, but the chemistry has boiled up within them. The next time they encounter each other, they’re already in cahoots and a forbidden cow enters to the equation.
It’s a land of opportunity, so they say. Cookie and Lu’s friendship is warm and sincere. Two delicate men in the midst of wilderness can only find solace in each other to survive the world that has naturally been unforgiving. However, First Cow, based on Raymond‘s novel, The Half Life, sees the need to give the cahoots a purpose. Call it a mutual ambition, a mean of survival, or a right moment to seize any given opportunity. Whatever it is, the cow is a perfect catalyst for the narrative. It’s like a sacred, mythical figure where encountering it unravels a more sophisticated social problem. The cow, owned by an important figure in the settlement, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), is the only living cow in the area. It’s a prized, underused cow needed only for tertiary needs. For Cookie and Lu, it’s the capital, the leverage, and the price they have to pay at once.
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It’s heartwarming to witness how Magaro and Lee bonding over each other through intimacy. Their characters bond over conversations—be it a menial one or an aspiring one. Cookie, however soft-spoken, is a serious person underneath even when he loves to melt situations with puns. Lu is an ambitious man with sky as the limits. Together, they form an enticing feat whose ambitions predate the modern American Dreams. They see opportunity, study the demand, analyze the supply, try making a little profits from the venture, and dream of a better life. The parallels with modern venture is inevitable, but First Cow arranges the elements perfectly to fit the era. More importantly, Reichardt‘s vision puts the entrepreneurship mechanism perfectly to boast the dynamics between the leads—the blood and flesh of the film.
Exquisite connections between Magaro and Lee help milking the warmth and intimacy out of First Cow. Meanwhile, the captivating narrative milked out of a forbidden cow colors the vibrant friendship story with an optimistic palette. It’s a moving story even when you realize that, like in modern time, small ventures’ arch-nemesis will always be capitalists and monopolists which the film portrays ironically. In the end, when the connection with earlier Shawkat‘s scene unraveled, First Cow has cemented itself as a bittersweet elegy to friendship amidst difficult times.