This is a recent enough movie that I think it's appropriate to warn that I'm going to talk freely (if not specifically) about its ending. In other words...
After an interlude in California to check in on Zorro and the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, we're back to trappers. But instead of Eastern trappers like Davy Crockett and Georgie Russel, we're deep into the territory that Lewis and Clark claimed for the United States. Kelly Reichardt's First Cow opens with a guy (John Magaro) hired to cook for a group of beaver trappers in Oregon.
No wait. It actually opens with a modern-day prologue in which a woman discovers a couple of skeletons buried near the banks of a large river. That was shocking and also troubling to me. I'm not opposed to Westerns being framed by contemporary scenes per se, but knowing that the movie is about a couple of guys trying to start a business in the West, I was afraid that Reichardt had revealed their fate much earlier than I wanted her to.
Back to Cookie, though: His trapping employers don't like him much and I immediately got the sense that he hadn't really found his true calling. But while they're still out in the wilderness, making their way towards the fort where they intend to sell their furs, Cookie meets a fugitive named King-Lu (Orion Lee) who's on the run from some Russian trappers that he's ticked off. The meeting is brief, but the pair reconnect at the fort and decide to partner up to face the hard life of surviving Oregon together.
Eventually - and the film moves super slow, so I do mean "eventually" - they hit upon a scheme to steal milk from the one cow in the territory and then use that to start a fried pastry business. King-Lu provides the business strategy; Cookie makes the treats.
Without going into detail about the rest of the story, I'll just say that it ends super abruptly. And it would be ambiguous if the ending didn't combine with the prologue to make the movie a bummer overall. But I was all in for everything between. Laid-back though it is, the film is beautifully shot, scored, and acted by its two leads. I love the friendship. And that's a pretty great cow.
The focus on partnership and working together is something I never get tired of, but do I feel like the deeper theme here has to do with property rights and I don't think the film explores that enough. Or maybe it's nuanced in a way I don't like by making the "criminals" really really likable and then punishing them harshly (though off-screen and with just enough uncertainty that you can write your own, different ending if you insist on it). I'm a fan of nuance, but the questions and distinctions raised by First Cow weren't the ones I was interested in.