“First Cow” Review

The 2019 film


The 2019 film “First Cow” is a tender, heartbreaking story about the American dream diluted to its core.

The American dream is not a unique idea when it comes to fiction. It has been dissected, analyzed and viciously torn apart by artists generation after generation, and belief in its legitimacy seems to wane all the time. But while most tend to criticize the American dream for being a cliche that leads to nothing but disappointment, 2020’s First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring John Magaro and Orion Lee, takes a much softer look at the concept through the lens of human connection.

The film’s opening scene is something of a punch in the gut. A shot of a large steamboat passing through a river is interrupted by a woman walking her dog down the nearby shore. Suddenly, the dog goes to dig something out of the dirt, and what was found must be seen to be believed. It really tells you where the movie is going, both adding and removing tension, but it makes everything from here on out feeling precious like it has to be treasured. The movie then flashes back to the 1800s with a shot of the same shore but younger or more whole.  From here, the movie introduces Cookie, a talented baker who makes food for a group of traveling hunters who seem to berate and insult him at every opportunity they can. But while he’s out looking for food, he encounters King Lu, a Chinese immigrant trying to escape another group of hunters after killing one of their compatriots. Cookie and King Lu run away and end up staying at a small settlement in the wilderness. There they learn that the area’s first cow, the movie’s namesake, is being brought in by the local aristocrat Chief Factor. Chief Factor is portrayed as overly high and mighty, flaunting his wealth in comparison to everyone else around him who live in wooden huts. He takes exceptional care of his cow and safeguards it from everyone else in the area. However, Cookie and King Lu, who were previously living off of shabby, stale biscuits made by Cookie, see an opportunity. At night, they sneak up to Factors house and milk his cow, and by day, they make money off of biscuits made with that same milk. Everyone wants to buy their biscuits, including Factor himself, who tastes the milk but is somehow unaware of where it came from. But from here, Cookie and King Lu are sent down a trail of deceit, putting themselves in more and more danger in an effort to safeguard their secret.

First Cow is a movie that’s ultimately about the human connection that the American dream is based on. From the get-go, King Lu and Cookie’s money-making scheme functions because of their bond. They make promises to each other of a better life in the future, if only they could make it out of this small patch of nothing in nowhere. But as much as they try, King Lu and Cookie can’t ever bring themselves to leave, as they say, that they’ll leave after they make a bit more money, even if that isn’t the reality. From the very beginning of America, people have relied on each other to survive, and Cookie and King Lu are made to exemplify this. King Lu uses Cookie to make the biscuits, and Cookie uses King Lu as the brains of the operation. But on a deeper level, they’re both lonely people, and they use each other for company.

The cinematography in First Cow is gorgeous. Everything feels bright and filled with life, and the camera has a slightly grainy filter over it that makes it feel antique, as it should see as it’s a flashback. One important thing to note is that the movie is exceedingly quiet. There’s barely any loud noise, and even in the tensest of scenes, all you hear is the sounds of nature and the voices of the characters. This sound design and the cinematography make many shots from the movie stick in my mind.  The whole story flows perfectly. It feels quaint and doesn’t drag too long, and the movie doesn’t dwell on anything more than it needs to. The acting from every character is superb, but the main two heroes stick out. John Magaro shines in the role of Cookie, playing him as a timid but reliable friend with amazing care and grace, while Orion Lee portrays King Lu with a determination and strength that perfectly fits the role of the character.

First Cow is a movie possessed with such elegance, such grace, such a care for cinema, that it might as well exist totally separate from all the schlocky Hollywood garbage pumped out every year. Kelly Reinhardt has created such an amazing lesson on compassion, friendship, and humanity as a whole, that if this gets snubbed from getting at least 1 Oscar, it would be a tragedy and an injustice to film. But regardless of what any awards have to say, First Cow is a tragic but heartwarming ballad that will leave you a little kinder at the end of the day.