First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s Revisionist Western

Kelly Reichardt, one of few genuinely and exclusively indie directors, has been making iconic films since 1994, when River of Grass premiered at the Sundance Film fest.

Since then, the director, who’s 56, has helmed Wendy and Lucy (2008) (my favorite feature of her), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013) and Certain Women (2016).

First Cow, based on Jonathan Raymond’s 2005 book, is set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s. It centers on two outsiders, the orphan cook Cookie (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who strike up an unlikely friendship based on a scheme: building a baking business with stolen milk from the first cow in the region.

Adapting Raymond’s novel Half-Life

Kelly Reichardt: I did not want to tell a story from the beginning of someone’s life to the end. It’s always about dropping the viewer in with my characters while they’re in motion. You spend a short amount of time with them and then onward they go. I’m all about the small strokes as opposed to the bigger strokes of life. Maybe that’s what has drawn me to Raymond’s writing, which is also focused on the small moments.

Casting a cow

KR: Casting a cow is just like casting an actor. I got a bunch of cow headshots. I knew I wanted a Jersey because they have such big eyes.

Animals in her films

KR: started with my own dog, Lucy. Like so many things in my filmmaking, it was for practical reasons. I shot smaller stories because I didn’t have the budget.  Lucy was in my movies because she just couldn’t be left alone without destroying everything. So she got written into the script.

When we were shooting Old Joy, I realized what a great directing technique it was to put an untrained animal together with actors in a scene. Because they can’t “perform,” they have to just respond in the moment to this creature. I like the relationship between humans and animals, because it’s all intuitive. And it’s always sort of my goal to not rely on dialogue, to make scenes that work without dialogue.

Making a Western

KR: It’s been such a masculine genre, and it’s mostly been told from a masculine point of view. Trying to find a different perspective, a different frame, for the Western is challenging for me. It’s a tricky thing, because the road has been paved before you.  I’m trying to make the camera  inclusive of different points of view, something other than just the strong man point of view.

I’m pushing against the romantic myths of the Western, and of the West. That’s why we had a rule in the film: no beauty shots. There can be no image in the film that’s beautiful for its own sake. Because even if you shoot the West like Wim Wenders does, where you get the gas stations and the jukeboxes, it’s still romanticized. And it’s still male.

First Cow as American Dream story

KR: The two men are very different in their approach. Cookie is down at the ground, foraging, milking the cow, working. King Lu is the motivator, the guy with ambition. In the film, he’s up in the trees, watching out, and has some pie-in-the-sky dreams. He just wants to get ahead, to have a comfortable life. But ultimately, it’s just not doable.

Affinity with Cookie or King Lu?

KR: I can always find myself in every character I create, and usually not with their best attributes. I see myself in both of the men. I feel really fortunate to have been able to land a teaching place at Bard College. I’ve never made any money with my movies, so to be able to teach one semester a year and be part of the Bard community and still be able to make a film about a cow with two actors that most people don’t recognize, that feels amazing.