Review of First Cow (2020), Dir. Kelly Reichardt, starring John Magaro and Orion Lee
First Cow is a quiet movie. Set mostly in the woods and a small trading post in the Oregon territory, and focusing almost exclusively on two characters, it is also a small movie. There’s no epic sweep here, of story or of scenery.
But the tiny details of First Cow come together to tell a story about entrepreneurship and ambition that Econlog readers will be thinking about for a long time afterward.
One way we might think about First Cow is as an interrogation and exploration of the chestnut (somewhat accurately attributed to Balzac) that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”
Our heroes, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu meet while trekking the Oregon woods. Cookie is the cook for a trapping expedition, currently in disgrace because his poor foraging skills mean that the trappers are slowly starving while bringing their furs back to the trading post. King-Lu is on the run from some irate Russians. Cookie shares some of his scarce food and water, and the two part ways.
They encounter each other again at the trading post. And it is here where we hear reports of the “first cow in the territory”, brought in to provide a bit of luxury for Chief Factor. (Though the characters in the film refer to him as if he is the head of an indigenous tribe, he is really the chief factor for the trading company that buys pelts from the trappers. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that reminds us how closely power and wealth are connected.) The trappers are dubious about the idea of the cow, seeing it as a senseless and feminizing bit of luxury.
But Cookie and King-Lu see an opportunity.
King-Lu is clearly a born entrepreneur. Early on, he refers to beaver pelts as “soft gold” and later he notes that the trappers are leaving the best part of the beaver behind. In China beaver oil [castoreum] is a sought after medicine. In Kirznerian moment King-Lu notes, “If a man could take a batch of that precious beaver oil on a ship to Canton he could make his fortune.” But, he notes, he doesn’t have contacts in Canton, and the trappers just leave the oil glands to rot in the woods. What he’d really like is a farm where he could grow nut trees, because nuts are easy to transport and ship. “But you can’t just grow a tree, it takes time. It’s the getting started that’s the hard part. No way for a poor man to start. You need capital, or you need some kind of miracle.”
Cookie responds “You need leverage.”
“Or a crime” counters King-Lu.
And a plan is hatched. They will secretly milk Chief Factor’s cow at night, then use the milk to make oily cakes (donuts) to sell to the trappers, who are all sick of plain flour and water bread. The cakes are a huge success. The trappers have lots of paper money, shells (for trade), coins, and even silver ingots. But they don’t have small, civilizing luxuries. So they line up for the cakes, offering well over the stated price as supplies dwindle. [Economic historians will enjoy the depiction of the trading post, with coins cut in half in order to make change, and prices that adjust moment by moment as supply changes.]
We know the plan can’t succeed forever. Cookie and King-Lu are going to get caught eventually. Or maybe they will manage to put together enough of a stake to head to California and open the small hotel that has become their shared entrepreneurial dream.
Until they do though, this small film lets us think about that Balzac quote. Is it right, and does it have to be? How much of a crime is it for Cookie and King-Lu to milk another man’s cow? Does it only start to be a crime when they violate Locke’s dictum to leave “as much and as good” for the other consumers of the cow’s milk? Does the obvious disparity in wealth between Chief Factor and the other two men make their crime less of a crime? Does his clear enjoyment of cruelty and punishment make it okay to take his milk? Could Cookie and King-Lu have found another way to get the milk?
Most importantly, perhaps, we wonder how, starting from nothing, anyone is able to take that first step, plant that first tree, or get that first cow that will allow an entrepreneurial dream to come to life.