I believe different things in different places.
It begins with two skeletons lying side by side in the dirt, their lives an untold story lost to the annals of time that can never be found regardless of whether their remains are. Why? Because they were nobodies in history’s eyes: loners and dreamers wishing to one day become more than nameless strangers to those they walked by on the way to town. And they may have become that and more if they hadn’t tragically been prevented from reaching their potential. Maybe then someone would have missed them. Maybe then someone would have put on a search to find their bodies before the earth absorbed them into her open arms. To discover their existence now is thus an alluring spark that’s able to conjure infinite possibilities.
The one we receive during the course of Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow (adapted from Jonathan Raymond‘s novel The Half Life by him and the director) is as good as any other. It introduces these men as having lived during the nineteenth century, one a white transplant from Maryland and the other an immigrant from China. It then places their forgotten grave in the Oregon Territory in the midst of a gold rush despite neither calling themselves prospectors hunting for gold. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is instead the former indentured servant of a baker who has found himself the much-reviled cook of a fur trapping team. He hopes to open a hotel one day. King Lu (Orion Lee) is conversely a vagabond searching for opportunity no matter the risk.
Who are they to each other? Strangers just like everyone … until they’re not. One man’s villain is another man’s friend and these two are too alike in spirit to be anything but the latter. So when a brawl between toxically macho expats from Great Britain reveals how the clothes you wear and accent you speak can’t separate the poor and wealthy from being anything but identical brutes, it’s no surprise that Cookie and King instinctively hang back. They don’t do so for the same reasons, though. Their commonality is merely indifference to the violent tendencies of others when the introspective analysis of what’s left behind proves ever more interesting. Cookie worries about what they’ve chosen to neglect while King uses that neglect to his advantage.
Reichardt portrays their budding partnership with a loving lens as full of humor as it is with possibility. Cookie is the silent one foraging and fishing while the loquacious King waxes on about the economic climate and schemes ways to capitalize on it. They continue this way for days until a light bulb goes off in both their heads on the subject of Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) newly bought milk cow. The animal’s presence delights Cookie because he can remember the joy of baking with the creamy liquid in his former life. It intrigues King as a rare commodity whose use to his friend might prove useful to their futures. Getting their hands on that milk means cornering the market on quality bread products until more cows arrive.
This is where their personalities shine through to justify their clandestine thievery. Cookie can’t help but be overjoyed by the reaction to his oily cakes and King can’t help being overjoyed by the rising number of silver pieces in their possession. They know it can’t last—Factor soon finds his way down to the market to try one of these famous biscuits he’s heard so much about—but stopping too soon would mean missing out on easy profits. Luckily for them, however, Factor is too self-absorbed to realize he’s the only source of milk they could possibly have. And since everyone loves having this delicacy at his fingertips in such uncivilized surroundings, even the local paranoid snoop (Rene Auberjonois in one of his final roles) minds his business.
We don’t follow their journey to see whether they get away with the crime or find their way south to spend their earnings. We don’t because we know they eventually meet their demise in the woods, isolated enough to ensure they stay there. The reason we watch therefore stems from their friendship itself and the platonic love growing within them despite having met as lone souls used to running from others—not being drawn in closer. Cookie is the type to need escape when angry compatriots turn on him and King is the type to turn first so as not to find himself dead in a ditch. So seeing them worry about the other’s well being above profit and self-preservation means everything. They’ve found something greater than themselves.
And we genuinely love spending time with them as they weigh the pros and cons of slowing down when outsiders (Scott Shepherd) appear suspicious or ramping up to strike while the iron is hot. Their flash fried oily cakes become more valuable than gold to the burly trappers and British soldiers because they provide a sense of home via nostalgia and flavor. So we smile with Cookie when he basks in the glow of praise and smirk with King upon seeing the lines grow despite his rising prices. Add the purity of the relationship born between baker and cow during their late evening milking sessions with compassionate conversation and you almost wonder if Chief Factor will simply welcome them in as business partners upon learning of the deception.
We wonder despite sensing the truth at the back of our minds that life isn’t a fairy tale and that the violence these two men forever try to avoid always seems to find them anyway. It’s a credit to Reichardt’s humanistic approach that we can hope for it anyway, though, since it’s nice to root for the underdog regardless of any gray morality they might be operating under. It helps too that Magaro and Lee perform their roles with a heartfelt familiarity that makes us cheer them on as friends while they profit off the backs of the rich rather than the other way around (Factor’s sunny disposition is born from hubris, not charity). We find aspiration in Cookie and King’s kinship. Grace still exists amongst the cutthroat.
 Photo by Allyson Riggs Courtesy of A24
 (L-R) Orion Lee, John Magaro Photo by Allyson Riggs Courtesy of A24
 Toby Jones Photo by Allyson Riggs Courtesy of A24