JayQ’s review published on Letterboxd:
It's the getting started that's the puzzle. No way for a poor man to start. You need capital. Or you need some kind of miracle.
You need leverage.
Or a crime.
Foreshadowing the arrival of the titular animal later in the film, First Cow opens on a shot of a cargo ship winding its way down an Oregon river. Even if the amount of goods has grown exponentially, they are still being transported in the stead of a wealthy owner. Hundreds of years has not changed the fact that the aristocracy always controls the resources. Chief Factor (cheekily named, as those with the power are the chief factor in capitalism), however, does not - like many of his peers - realize how best to use those resources, reducing his cow to an ornamental purpose without her mate for breeding. Enterprising individuals, like Cookie and King-Lu, are able to prosper off of the opportunities left on the table if they can gain access to the resources.
Like all free markets, once an entrepreneur hits on a highly demanded product, the allure of greater profit can be corrupting. A microcosmic fable of capitalism, First Cow teaches how those with power will always beat down any competitor who tries to elevate their status or wealth.
Even as Kelly Reichardt finds a joy (I would argue this is her first comedy) in her lead duo capturing the market in their small trading port town, one gets the sense that Cookie and King-Lu's relationship as well as their dynamic with the cow are more where her allegiances lie. Upon being introduced, Cookie flips over an impeded lizard, showing compassion for another living creature rather than aggression. The two protagonists similarly support each other in their mutual, loving partnership, but Cookie's appreciative whispers to Factor's cow might be the guiding light of the film; he speaks kindly to her and she gives him milk in return. Where every other trapper or prospector in the town boils over with a competitive spirit (so many fistfights!), Cookie understands the mutual benefit of a system were everyone shares resources and their boons equally and appreciatively. Unfortunately, that way of thinking has long been criminalized and buried over in this country.