First Cow

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
First Cow Movie Poster Image
Beautiful, slow-moving story of friendship and America.
  • PG-13
  • 2020
  • 122 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Message mostly centers on power of friendship, how it can help people through tough times. The movie is also about inequality, the difficulties of the American Dream, and the differences between the early 19th century and now.

Positive Role Models & Representations

While Cookie and King Lu commit a (relatively harmless) crime and can't be considered unblemished role models, Cookie's kindness, King Lu's cleverness, and their friendship and teamwork are still admirable.


Guns and shooting. Fighting, shoving. Dead animals in traps. Character shoved with a boot. Squabbling. A character falls down a hill and hits their head (sickening noise). Character falls from high tree branch. A dog digs up two skeletons. Knives shown. Mentions of killing. Mention of someone being "gutted."


A naked man hides in the bushes; nothing sensitive shown.


Infrequent language includes uses of "s--t" and "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Social drinking in a bar. Friends share a bottle at home. Smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that First Cow is a drama set in the early-1800s Pacific Northwest about the friendship between two men and their attempts to start a business. It includes guns and shooting, fighting and shoving, arguing, dead animals in traps, knives, skeletons, falls and injuries, as well as some violent, descriptive dialogue. A naked man hides in the bushes, but nothing sensitive is shown. Language includes infrequent uses of "s--t" and "hell." Characters drink in a bar and at home, and there's some smoking. As directed by acclaimed filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, the movie is gently, slowly observant, as well as tactile and lyrical, like a poem. It won't be for every taste, but for patient viewers 13 and up, it's highly recommended.

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What's the story?

In FIRST COW, a young woman and her dog discover two skeletons in the present-day Pacific Northwest woods. The story then flashes back to the early 1800s, where a gentle cook called "Cookie" (John Magaro) travels with a band of rough fur trappers. While hunting for food in the woods, Cookie finds a Chinese immigrant, King Lu (Orion Lee), who's on the run from angry Russians. Cookie decides to help, rather than exposing him. Later, in town, the two men meet again and become fast friends. They learn that the chief fur trader (Toby Jones) has obtained a cow, and Cookie thinks that if he had milk, he could make delicious biscuits. King Lu proposes that they steal some milk at night. They do, and Cookie's biscuits, called "oily cakes," are so good that the pair decide to sell them. They're a hit, and business is so brisk that the friends may soon have enough money to move on to somewhere else. But unfortunately, the chief has heard about the cakes ...

Is it any good?

Director Kelly Reichardt approaches this historical material with her singular, gentle, observant style, putting an emphasis on pairs and on inequality. It's a period piece, but it's also quite relevant. Based on a novel and co-written by Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote or co-wrote most of Reichardt's earlier movies), First Cow seems to find its pace based on Cookie's gentle kindness (he even helps right a struggling salamander) and King Lu's soft-spokenness. Their domestic scenes together -- cleaning, chopping wood, and especially cooking -- have a quiet, lyrical, tactile quality, almost like poetry. The film's music, which is often diegetic (shown on screen), effectively adds to the mood.

But Reichardt also establishes menace and threat early on in First Cow, from the present-day prologue (featuring Alia Shawkat) to the thuggish trappers, a bar fight, and even bear-like settlers admiring Cookie's clean boots. This constant imbalance keeps the movie feeling tense throughout. But, of course, the real point is the way that Reichardt depicts the unraveling of the American dream, how the gulf between the haves and have nots is often insurmountable. Yet the movie -- which shares themes with Reichardt's earlier films Old Joy and Meek's Cutoff -- is still beautiful and satisfying, perhaps because of the way it constantly strives forward. It opens with a quote from poet William Blake: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." As long as we connect and keep going, hope is still possible.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in First Cow. How much is shown, and how much is implied? How did it affect you? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • What does the movie have to say about friendship? How was friendship different in the 1800s? How was it the same?

  • What does the movie have to say about the American Dream, and making something of yourself? Is it easy? Is it possible?

  • Are the two main characters admirable, even though they steal? Why or why not? Do you consider them role models?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

Themes & Topics

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