First Cow, the newest A24 release, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a subtle study of the American Dream. Unlike the sprawling Go-West epics of movies like Far and Away,First Cow prefers to focus on a tiny moment in this nation’s long history, the sort of story that was probably repeated countless times in the building of America.
First Cow opens with Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) as he’s finishing a stint as cook for a group of trappers. Cookie is the sort of man who is not well-suited to the rough and tumble life in the Oregon Territory of the 1800s. He is quiet, almost shy, the type of man who comforts a baby that has been left alone, while the baby’s father engages in a barroom brawl.
Early in the tale Cookie meets a fellow misfit named King-Lu (Orion Lee). King-Lu is a bit more confident, but due to being a Chinese American immigrant in the Old Northwest, he is also an outsider. They embark on a tentative friendship, eventually growing into a joint business venture, where they might be able to realize both of their dreams.
This friendship is the true heart of First Cow. Like an earlier outcast/friendship movie, Midnight Cowboy, First Cow is content to sit and spend time with the two main characters. We get to see the two men talk about their hopes and dreams and watch as they slowly build a business together. And yes, the titular “first cow” plays a pivotal role in their plans.
A local official, Chief Factor (the always-great Toby Jones), enters the story, offering a possibility for Cookie and King-lu to build their business to the next level. Jones’ character raises the stakes as well as helping illuminate the myth that all one has to do to make it in America is to work hard and keep one’s head down.
First Cowwill certainly not be for everyone. The film is quiet and content to take it’s time to let scenes breathe. The sense of time and place is both authentic and breathtaking. But when one leaves First Cow, it’s most likely the friendship between Cookie and King Lu that will linger in your memory.