The American Dream is a concept clouded by a mix of experiences and testimonies. A clear cut road for some, but for others the American Dream remains just as tangible as dreams themselves. It’s a dragon the men and women of the country have been chasing for hundreds of years anchored by the promise of a world with limitless possibilities and an abundance of resources. More often than not, one party must take advantage of another in order to get ahead. Be it a single man profiting off of the hard work of several others living in squalor, or a pair of men down on their luck getting by with stolen ingredients from said single profiting man. Sometimes there’s a cow. Not often, but sometimes.
This is one of those sometimes.
First Cow is the story of a budding friendship in the 1820s Oregon Territory, looking to earn a living by selling delicious treats to their fellow settlers. To do this, however, they must continually steal milk from the only cow in the territory, owned by the wealthiest man in the territory. The pair’s friendship grows as they continue to sell their contraband right under the noses of the elite, but their newfound luck may only last so long.
First Cow is one of those films that builds its identity through capturing the quietness and the common of life in its time period. Ample time is devoted to the scenery, the quiet moments of walking through the woods, or a semi-bustling marketplace as much as the film focuses on its plot. Most of the time the film is void of a score. When music is present, its simple stringed songs that beautifully compliments the Oregon countryside. Shot in a box-like 4:3 aspect ratio, the film manages to feel intimate even when focused on the rolling mountainside or the vast ocean of woods.
At the heart of the story is the friendship between Cookie and King-Lu. Cookie, played by John Magaro, is a hired chef for a team of trappers who hopes to one day open a hotel in California. He’s soft-spoken, a tad timid, thoughtful and caring, standing out amongst the rough and tumble aesthetic around him. While other settlers spend their hard earned silver on whiskey and pleasures, Cookie upgrades his footwear in the form of a pair of shiny boots, which draws stares from his peers.
On the flip-side, we have King-Lu, played by Orion Lee. On the run after potentially killing a man in defense of his friend, he forms a close bond with Cookie after he gifts him food and shelter during their first encounter. In contrast to Cookie, King-Lu is more outwardly forward; a planner who is determined to seize any opportunity laid in front of him. Despite being the one who usually ignites the schemes, the racism against the Chinese in these parts corner him into a publicly perceived role as an oriental assistant. Despite being very well spoken in English, many tend to gravitate to Cookie when conversing with the pair. The wealthy Englishman the pair meet doesn’t even bother to learn his name, rudely referring to him simply as “the Chinaman”. It can be assumed that these cultural transgressions are what sparks King-Lu’s will to fend for himself and get ahead by any means necessary. His plans ultimately seem to be what lands him and anyone associated with him in hot water, but he remains a loyal and steadfast friend through it all.
The two’s friendship is earnest and tender, both being somewhat connected by an unseen ethereal chain. The universe has a way of pulling them back together, and they seem fairly aware of it. Their relationship is by far the standout element of the film. To see their ideas blossom into a successful business is heartwarming to watch. The trials they face later down the line put their friendship to the test in a mature, restrained way that doesn’t involve typical tropes like a big blowout or an overblown misunderstanding. It’s one of the best cinematic pairings I’ve seen in a while, and hopefully they will get the recognition they deserve.
For film titled First Cow, there’s hardly any cow. I went into this thinking the cow, despite how influential it is in the story, would have more screentime shared with the main duo. When she is onscreen, it’s in genuinely comforting and quiet moments. She’s treated with such respect by Cookie, who recognizes her as more than a means to an end. They are two creatures connected through gentle proceedings and kindness. I’m a sucker for human/animal relationships like these in films, and while I’m very happy with how it was presented in the film, I left yearning for more of that. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been entirely realistic, but I almost expected Cookie and King-Lu to go on the run with the cow in a cross country journey. Maybe I let expectations get the better of me, but I would’ve been on board for more. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cow(bell).
When I say this film is slow, I mean it’s s l o w. The devotion to focusing on simple actions like walking or picking mushrooms for extending periods of time is the bread and butter of this film’s style, and for many, this could be a turnoff. I felt it to be especially slow in the beginning, but it either picked up after that or I just got used to it. I like to think I have pretty good patience with simple, quiet stories, but I’ll admit I drifted off a bit every now and then. The conflict is present, but minimal until the final act. Even the ending is a bit abrupt and simple, but I found myself being satisfied with it.
First Cow sheds light on the divide in a proclaimed capitalist society. More often than not, there’s one to few sitting on top of many others just trying to get by. This belief that only a few can achieve true success forces some to become independent and nihilistic towards their peers. Survival of the fittest is the law of the land, and you need to get in while the getting is good. What the alliance of Cookie and King-Lu represents is the call for teamwork, community and family in hopes that the wealth can be shared with those who come from nothing. Using the milk from the cow owned by the man with the only house in the settlement, the duo spread comfort and happiness to their fellow man through their tasty oily cakes. It’s a nice sentiment to a bleak world ahead, even if we know from the beginning there’s little chance of ending well.
Despite being a 2 hour movie that I felt could definitely be an hour and a half, First Cow left me feeling happy. A24 continues to distribute some of the most interesting and unique film experiences to date, and this film is no exception. If you’re looking for a quiet film in no rush, you should find plenty to like. For those unfamiliar or unprovoked by these types of slow burn films, I don’t particularly see this film winning you over.
Is it too soon to push for an Oscar nomination for Eve (the cow)?
Oily cakes are the bread and butter of Cookie and King-Lu’s budding business. Made with simple ingredients and milk from the only cow in the territory, these delicious treats are early predecessors to snacks like donuts and funnel cake. In attempt to capture these snacks in liquid form, we have a sweet cocktail that utilizes whipped cream vodka, chocolate liqueur, and of course, some delicious dairy. Decorated with a vanilla glaze rim, this cocktail will hopefully allow you to reminisce on the good old days of childhood before you had to grow up and cut your teeth in the promised land of America.
- 2oz whipped vodka or cake vodka
- 1oz creme de cacao
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- Vanilla extract
- 1 cup Confectioners sugar (for rim)
- Milk or half-and-half
- To make the vanilla glaze rim, add the sugar, 1 tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of milk and 1-2 drops of vanilla extract to a bowl and mix. If the mixture is too thin, add more sugar. If it is too thick, add more milk.
- Dip your double old fashioned or stemless wine glass’s rim in the glaze and set aside.
- In a shaker, add your vodka, chocolate liqueur, simple syrup, 3oz of milk, 1 tablespoon of honey and 2-3 drops of vanilla extract. Use a spoon to mix in the honey if it sticks to the shaker.
- Add ice and shake.
- Strain into prepared glass.