There’s been a lot of talk about the “American Dream” lately—mostly concerning its diminishing promise—echoed by politicians vowing to restore the viability of this disciplined yet steady track to financial stability for the average American.
The word “American,” whether people want to admit it or not, has also always been synonymous with “immigrant.” At least that’s what becomes clear in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, her Oregonian ode to the human desire for comfort and friendship. Adapted from the novel The Half-Life by Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Jon Raymond (who also co-wrote), the film takes us back to the territory during the mid-19th century, when the economy of beaver pelts and gold rush hopefuls brought waves of migration to the area.
A baker from Maryland, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), finds himself amid a hostile group of fur trappers on the way to Oregon when he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant fresh on the run from scorned Russians. Cookie at first mistakes King Lu for a Native American, ostensibly the only visibly non-white inhabitants in the area.
A fraternal bond between Cookie and King Lu quickly materializes, and race hardly impacts their day-to-day interactions and conversations. King Lu, a world traveler from Canton, only briefly mentions his journeys to England, Africa and the U.S. There is something far more pressing than identity in this early outline of American life for emancipated citizens looking for a leg up: capital, money, profit.
When a coveted dairy cow is brought to the territory by an English nobleman known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), it is rumored amongst the other settlers that he brought the cow because he so greatly craves cream in his tea. King Lu immediately recognizes that fresh milk combined with Cookie’s baking expertise could give the duo a unique trade in an area where the predominant sweet is a bland concoction of water and flour crackers.
Both Chief Factor and King Lu recognize that the cow, credited as “Evie,” will increase their wealth and status if used properly. Factor is in the midst of getting a steer for the cow, while King Lu’s plan to steal the cow’s milk and make baked goods would net a wide profit margin. The cow, professedly only as valuable as her product, is also granted autonomy in the sense that she has a history—her mate and calf were also brought to Oregon by boat alongside her, but did not survive the perilous journey.
And so, in the dead of night, King Lu and Cookie leave the small shack they share with a metal pail in hand, quickly sneaking through the pasture until they reach the dairy cow. She is sweet to her core, barely making a sound as Cookie milks her. Cookie is just as sweet as she is, lamenting the loss of her “husband” and “baby” as he fills his pail, offering her comfort in suggesting that Oregon isn’t such a bad place to be. King Lu sits atop a nearby tree, watching over Cookie and the cow to make sure that their cover isn’t blown.
With the pilfered milk, Cookie gets to work on “oily cakes,” the batter enticingly coming to a sizzle in a cast iron pan. King Lu tastes the cake, and immediately begins gauging the price one would pay for such a delicacy. Cookie, however, can only think of how much better they would taste with honey. When the first batch of cakes sell out in a matter of seconds, King Lu gradually increases the price, while Cookie finds honey and fresh cinnamon to make a perfect final product.
What is at odds between the two characters, despite their undeniably beautiful friendship, is what they want out of life. Where King Lu, a worldly man who innately understands the bruteness of supply and demand, really doesn’t want to stop while they’re ahead, the docile yet thoughtful Cookie keeps up the scheme less for the money and more so for the opportunity to practice a craft that has since been walled off to him.
One can’t help but wonder what these men might do if they didn’t have to steal in order to meet their respective versions of the “American Dream”: for King Lu, the prospect of owning land and making an income; for Cookie, a wish to pursue his craft, if only “someplace warmer.”
Reichardt makes no moral judgement on Cookie and King Lu for stealing, rather outlining the idea that in America, those who have resources will ensure that no one else has access to their goods, even if the population of an area is small and overtly impoverished. Chief Factor comes off as incessant is his yearning for European comforts, while the rest of the town’s inhabitants scrounge and, evidently, must steal in order to broaden their horizons. In fact, the film argues that to steal is the only viable alternative to living in poverty. No amount of gumption or bootstrap ideology can change the simple fact that in America, the dream is more of an illusion.
The irony is that Cookie and King Lu’s act of theft is so small compared to the pillaging and exploitation that propelled America into an economic superpower in the first place. First Cow takes place when slavery was the main economic drive of the country, when Native Americans were facing genocide every time a white person inhabited their territory, when women were second-class citizens, when man began decimating nature for his own gain, when money and land is what made one a man. To be a crab in a barrel as a citizen on the lower rungs of society is an understatement.
I suspect the purity of First Cow will win most viewers over. It is funny in the most earnest way, with the nourishing nature of friendship presented as the foundation of the film, opening with a quote from William Blakes’ Proverbs from Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Yet if the film wants to implore us to understand the essence of man, how its portrayal of burgeoning American capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit is undoubtedly, jarringly, at odds with the nature of mankind. At its core, humanity craves companionship, stability and understanding, while capitalism breeds selfishness, inequality and isolation.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond (novel); Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt (screenplay)
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner
Release Date: March 6, 2020 (original); July 10, 2020 (digital)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.