First Cow: Capitalism and Companionship Collide
The first time you see a cow -- the cow, the first cow -- floating down the river, you might marvel at her calm demeanor. After all, she’s the first cow to make it all the way to the Oregon Territory. She’s arriving on a raft. And her husband and calf have perished along the way. She’s like many of the travelers making their way to and through the wild West; lonely, numbed by sacrifice, unaware of what lies ahead, unable to return to the land from whence they came. It may be that, like many of the weary and hardy folk in the Territories, she has accepted her fate. Or it may be that she’s just a cow. But First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is not a tale of bovine woes. It is a story about capitalism, companionship, and the best and worst of human nature. First Cow follows the story of Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook who signs on with a group of ravenous beaver fur trappers traveling to the Territories in search of opportunities. Along the way, he comes to the aid of a gold-digger named King Lu (Orion Lee), a man who has just committed the least morally reprehensible murder the West has likely seen. A chance encounter in a bar leads to shared meals and space, and eventually to late-night discussions of opening a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. But San Francisco is expensive. King remarks that they need capital. Cookie counters that they could use leverage. Then King suggests a crime. A largely victimless crime, involving the well-bred dairy cow that wealthy landowner Chief Factor imported so he could have cream with his tea. Cookie and King sneak out to Chief’s cow pasture late at night and milk his cow. They abscond with the stolen milk and use it to make honey-coated “oily cakes,” which quickly become the latest fad among the biscuit and lard-eating population. As their baked goods get more popular, they draw the attention of none other than Chief Factor, who comments that the baked goods mysteriously taste of home. First Cow is one of Reichardt’s best films. It convincingly and subtly conveys her focus on the tension between economics and personal relationships, and the simple scenic imagery and set design captures the tired, hopeful spirit of her characters. That is not to say that First Cow leaves nothing to be desired. The film is boring and meandering at times, leaving viewers wondering where the story is going, wondering whether we should care more about the characters, wondering what is really at stake. But First Cow is commendable for its depiction of a rough-and-tumble capitalism that resonates with America today. Cookie and King cannot achieve their dreams absent outside assistance or a miracle. In a land of sharp class divisions and no welfare to speak of, help is not forthcoming (and neither is a miracle). So Cookie and King grab the cow by the udder and dive headlong into the unpredictable realm of entrepreneurship, knowing that there is risk in pursuing reward, but pursuing it nevertheless. As King acknowledges, “anything worth doing” is dangerous. And you might just make a friend along the way.