There is plenty of evidence that people are the worst. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the humane capacity to choose differently.
First Cow is a deceptively simple movie with timeless themes. It juxtaposes the harsh realities of frontier life with the joy of companionship to deliver a bittersweet Old West fable.
It’s the 1820s somewhere in the Northwest. A skeleton of a community exists in a settlement. Only the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) has the proper house and the sole cow. Everyone else lives in boxes of wood and stone. Fur trapping is the main trade. Men fight over the most trivial things.
It’s a harsh environment, but the film doesn’t look bleak. It’s an untamed landscape that promises the American dream. A pop-up bakery of sorts appears in the settlement one day. Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) sell “oily cakes”. It’s such a success that it attracts the attention of the Chief Factor, who is unaware that the “secret Chinese ingredient” is actually from his own cow.
How long could they keep it up? First Cow isn’t just about the flawed formative years of capitalism. Against the impoverished backdrop is a touching low-key buddy movie. Cookie and King-Lu choose kindness in circumstances when most men around them would not. The two men share warmth, shelter, and compassion throughout the story.
John Magaro and Orion Lee have great onscreen chemistry as a pair of entrepreneurial kindred spirits. When Cookie arrives at King-Lu’s house he sweeps the floor. This thoughtful gentle chef dreams of having his own hotel and bakery. And he meets the right quick-thinking schemer to help him.
But when you’re betting on your future by betting against your present, things go wrong. It’s the classic case of Icarus flying too close to the sun. You already know how this movie ends, but the last frame makes it all the more resonant.
The American dream is a myth. King-Lu has the mind and Cookie has the skills. But none of that mattered if they didn’t risk their lives for a resource that will never be accessible to them. But then again, within this shared experience, they found a friendship that made it worthwhile.
First Cow tells us that life is hard and upward mobility is rigged, but there are still simple pleasures to be had if one is willing to share the joy of living.
First Cow is a poignant bittersweet tale about how compassion and companionship can still be found despite the harsh realities of life.