First Cow (2020) Analysis – An Association enhanced by Milk.


America was not built on land, but on human associations.  The first scene of First Cow happens in the woods of an unknown American region, where you find two skeletons curled together as if still seeking warmth. The film which commences with William Blake’s quote from “Proverbs of Hell”: The bird a nest, the spider a web, and man friendship, clues it’s viewers that those bones are going to narrate a story about a beautiful companionship.

First Cow takes you on a journey, about the arrival of First Cow in America, from a far off land.  But this story is not about that entity but an association that was created through it. The milk that bounded two companions stronger than blood.

 There’s a story there, all right.

The Story

First Cow directed by Kelly Reichardt is adapted from the novel The Half-Life, which talks about a lot of things. It is about capitalism and exploration of the flaws of the Great American Dream. On the surface, First Cow narrates the story of Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) who encounters King Lu (Orion Lee), igniting a companionship that is going to be explored throughout. The first meeting, supplemented by second, leads to Cookie and King Lu building a life together,  fishing and working in affable silence. They soon devise a scheme to earn which leads to a stronger friendship but harsh conditions. 

Reichardt shows through the small choices both men make, that they are devoid of contacts and thus need a place to cure their loneliness, not particularly a roof, but another human.

In one such striking scene, when Cookie arrives at King Lu’s small, fragile cabin, he immediately sets to work sweeping, tidying, gathering wildflowers to place in a small bottle on a smaller shelf. King asks him to sit down and rest but don’t push upon that gesture which suggests King wants Cookie to be in space as if it is his own place. It feels like they both knew from the first moment forward that they are going to find their solace in each other’s unity and the same is achieved through their simple, quiet performances, we watch them build and cherish their new status quo.

The First Cow

Cookie is a baker but what’s a baker without milk in his cookies? The first cow spurs Cookie and King Lu into action, as they discover Cookie’s talent for baking. 

“It was milk in your batter that did it.”

But the first cow in America doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to a capitalist, who holds wealth and doesn’t want to part with his cow’s milk, even if it is of no use, the next day. Capitalists will let it waste, than be used by another in need. But Cookie and King Lu still find a way to fulfil their American dream.

“Some people can’t imagine being stolen from.”

Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

The film, at many intervals, gives away hints that this association is going to end bitterly, but First Cow saves the trust in humanity through its beautiful narrative.  The importance of association can be traced in these spectacular lines, when a man in the tavern comments about the first cow in America is also the lone cow, as her mate and calves died in transit. What a life an American lives, in loneliness, which today is both evident and very prominent. 

As stated earlier, the film’s narrative is really deceptive as it includes many different perspectives and messages combined inside a simple tale. One such notion is about American and their association with Red Indians. Though not much is pushed in the screenplay, there are minor hints in the dialogues and beautifully crafted scenes that give away such breadcrumbs. We learn little about them, but there’s no need, because above all else, it is a story of friendship, treated here as a haven and basic human need, as essential as water or bread. 

First Cow might feel slow in its pace, and look boring to some, but it is one of the best films of this year, that hosts William Tyler’s beautiful, serene score. This score, every time it is played, instills a rhythm in one’s body that is too beautiful to describe in words. A special mention to the dialogues that might not be punchy, but are inherently satirical and if listened keenly, creates a rift of thoughts which is an epitome of rich writing.

The first cow supplies many vital ingredients. What we choose to do with them, is solely left upon its viewers.

First Cow directed by Kelly Reichardt is an American Drama Film based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life. The film is available on VOD platforms since July 10, 2020.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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