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Film / First Cow

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"History isn't here yet. It's coming, but we got here early this time. Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on our own terms."

First Cow is a 2019 film directed by Kelly Reichardt based on the book The Half Life (No relation) by co-screenwriter Johnathan Raymond.

Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) is a cook traveling in the woods with a group of fur trappers in the North American Pacific Northwest of the 1820s. After befriending a Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), on his way to a nearby town, the two men learn a wealthy English tradesman has transported the first cow into their region from Europe. Encouraged by King-Lu, Cookie steals milk from the cow at night in order to make a batch of buttermilk biscuits. The two then begin an operation of stealing milk and selling oil cakes to the desperate town deprived of food outside of tasteless soda bread.

The film also features Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Gary Farmer, and Scott Shepherd in supporting roles. It saw a brief theatrical release in March 2020 before being pulled from theaters and released on demand due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Tropes present:

  • The American Dream: First Cow comes across as film focused on the fallacy of this ideology. Cookie and King-Lu discuss pretty early on that "the land of opportunity" still requires people to have capital to set their pursuits into motion, and that capital is almost impossible without cheating or stealing.
    • Notably, this movie is set before the Oregon Country (which included not only the modern-day state of Oregon but also Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and the future Canadian province of British Columbia) was even a part of the US officially, with it being an area jointly administered by both the British and the Americans (hence why many of the fur trappers seem to be Americans but the Chief Factor is British).
  • Ambiguously Gay: Neither Otis or King-Lu show any explicit attraction to the other, but they also never mention any intention of looking for female company and seem to plan to live together in California. The actors themselves have described it as a romance and not just a platonic friendship, whereas the director has declined to answer either way.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The film only adapts half of the The Half Life novel; the other half is set 160 years after Cookie and King-Lu's story. It is referenced in the present-set sequence at the start of the film.
  • Crapsack World: Oregon Country in 1820 sucked. Part of the reason why several characters enjoy Cookie's pastries so much is because it reminds them of what food back in their homeland tasted like (Oregon has no cows at this time, so most of the bread is bland and water-based).
  • Dawn of the Wild West: The film is set in Oregon Country during the 1820s when settlement by non-Natives was just beginning and the U.S. and Britain vied for control of the region.
  • Downer Ending: The movie ends with the implication that Cookie and King-Lu are shot dead by one of the Chief Factor's men.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Cookie is introduced traveling in the woods collecting plant-based foods, even gently flipping over a lizard stuck on its back. Whenever he steals milk from the cow, he speaks comfortably to it. The notable exception is that he'll still catch a fish when given the opportunity.
  • Establishing Character Moment
    • Otis gently lifting the a belly-up lizard so it can properly walk again.
    • When Otis finds King-Lu, the latter recounts having to shoot someone in an attempt to save his murdered friend. This indicates that King-Lu is not unused to unscrupulous action-taking as well as his Undying Loyalty to his friends.
  • The Hero Dies: If those skeletons at the beginning are any indication, Cookie and King-Lu never live past the final scene.
  • Nice Guy: In a world of colonial depravity, Cookie stands out as a mild-mannered, genuinely loving protagonist.
  • The Quiet One: Cookie only has a handful of lines throughout the movie.
  • Sweet Baker: Cookie is a prime male example of this trope, as it goes along with his Nice Guy personality.
  • True Companions: Already King-Lu understands Cookie to be a friendly face by the time they meet again, but their companionship is cemented by Cookie helping Lu tidy up his home without asking. At the movie's end, King-Lu lays next to a tired Cookie and reassures him.
  • Together in Death: Cookie and King-Lu die side by side shortly after the final scene.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Downplayed, but without King-Lu's coercion, it's unlikely Cookie would've attempted to steal any milk. This is first demonstrated when the two are reunited at the bar and Cookie reluctantly leaves a baby he was asked to watch in favor of accompanying King-Lu back to his shack for a drink.