Vol. 110 (2021) 

Movie Review: First Cow

By Jay Fox 

Brooklyn, NY, USA


The wilderness of the United States is vast. Yes, there are several sprawling metropolises and cities and suburban expanses of strips malls and box stores, but the overwhelming majority of land in this country, especially West of the Mississippi, is open farmlands, prairie, woodlands, mountain forests, and deserts that are only briefly interrupted by small towns that are passed and forgotten before they’re even in your rearview mirror. When you get deep into the mountains of Colorado or Washington or Oregon, you can’t help but feel dwarfed by the enormity and permanence of the landscape. You recognize that you are just momentarily passing through both literally and existentially.


This theme of the West’s grand intractability sets the stage for Kelly Reichardt’s most recent film, First Cow (based on the novel The Half-Life by Jon Raymond, who cowrote the screenplay with Reichardt), but the heart of the story is far less epic. While it is a superbly shot and extremely realistic frontier flick that explores the harsh realities of life in nineteenth century Oregon territory and offers a tame critique of the American Dream, its primary concern is friendship. The epigraph from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”) makes this point crystal clear, as does the film’s opening vignette, which is set in the present and alternates between a cargo ship on the Columbia River crawling across the screen and a woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog discovering, and then excavating, two skeletons laying side by side. Whoever these two are, the viewer reasons, this film is about them.

First Cow Movie Poster

Uncoincidentally, the film has two protagonists: Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee). Both men have come to Oregon Territory in search of opportunity, though neither seem primed for success. Cookie is too meek for the brutality of the terrain and those who have come to exploit its riches. A cook traveling westward to a settlement in Oregon Territory with a group of belligerent trappers, he is less the free spirit going where the wind takes him and more of a shrinking violet caught up in the stampede of vicious men lured to Oregon by their own avarice and desire for easy riches. Without a protector or the safety of civilization, his survival on the frontier seems unlikely.


In contrast to Cookie’s gentle and at times obsequious nature is King Lu, who is worldly, audacious, and conniving. He has come to the American West to get rich or die trying and oozes the kind of temerity that continues to define American entrepreneurial culture (i.e., that “killer instinct” to do whatever it takes to triumph). As the two first meet while Cookie is foraging for mushrooms and King Lu is naked and on the run from a gang of Russians because he shot one of their friends in the neck suggests that King Lu needs an anchor to keep him from his more reckless impulses. Otherwise, he too will not last long on the frontier.


Cookie offers King Lu food and clothing, and then sneaks him back into camp during the night. King Lu manages to get away without the trappers catching wise to his presence and without saying goodbye to Cookie. However, it’s not long before the two are reunited at the settlement to which Cookie and the trappers were traveling, and King Lu returns Cookie’s previous kindness by offering him a place to stay and a bottle of whiskey to share. Though the two have very different demeanors, they trust one another and that, it would seem, is all that is really necessary to begin a friendship when you’ve both only recently drifted into a space unencumbered by the traditional laws of power.


“History isn’t here yet,” King Lu tells Cookie as they arrive at his shack not far from the settlement. “It’s coming. Maybe this time we can be ready for it.”

First Cow - Scene from the Trailer

As the two become closer, they begin to share their ambitions and plans. King Lu is clearly determined to make his fortune, but he lacks clear vision or any discernible talent from which he can profit. Conversely, Cookie has a skill (cooking), but he lacks ambition and, more immediately, the tools and ingredients he would need to make something that would allow him to become a real success. As much as he dreams of one day opening a bakery or at least making something other than squirrel and hardtack, he doesn’t have a product that anyone is going to want to buy. The kinds of delicacies for which people will pay good money require things that are difficult to find on the frontier—like milk.


As this friendship is blossoming, serendipity arrives in the form of a cow. It is a lone cow, as the accompanying bull and her calf did not make it on the trip up from San Francisco, and the cow’s wealthy owner, Chief Factor (Toby Jones), happens to live not far from King Lu’s shack. Okay … so serendipity is the wrong world. It’s more like the opportunity to commit a relatively harmless crime for serious personal gain under cover of night.


Without deliberating about the ethics of stealing milk from another person’s cow, King Lu and Cookie begin taking one bucket of milk at a time, making dough in their shack, and then frying the dough on the streets of the settlement. Cookie is responsible for milking the cow, mixing the dough, and frying the cakes. King Lu is the lookout during the milking, the moneyman on the street, and ostensibly the one preventing Cookie from getting robbed on his way home.


The cakes are an immediate success since those in the settlement are longing for the taste of home. As the cakes become more popular and Cookie and King Lu begin raking in some serious dough, one bucket of stolen milk becomes two, and two becomes three, but there’s never much of a cat and mouse game between Chief Factor and the milk thieves. Factor is almost pitifully oblivious to the crime even as he snacks on one of the cakes and ponders how Cookie managed to create it without access to a cow of his own. Furthermore, there is no real moral quandary that either Cookie or King Lu face when they decide to steal the milk or threaten the sustainability of their enterprise by progressively taking more. There is no ethical calculus that needs to be worked out. They want something, so they take it.


Had the film been about the theft, Factor’s shortcomings and the lack of internal conflict would have been disappointing. Heist movies need either an ethical dilemma or a good foil to serve as their engine. That the film is set in a frontier space outside the bounds of law and morality (and history, according to King Lu) precludes any need to bother weighing right and wrong. Meanwhile, Factor’s ineptitude is not a drag on the film’s central point, since the film isn’t about the heist or the cunning theft of milk from a hapless man so aloof that he tied a lone dairy cow to a stake in the middle of a wilderness teeming with bears and wolves and bobcats as if it were bait rather his prized possession.


First Cow is instead about the friendship of two men in an inhospitable land who choose to exploit an opportunity regardless of the potential consequences. It’s a tale of honor among thieves and a damn good one at that.



First Cow

Jay Fox    



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.





All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.