King-Lu: “It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle. No way for a poor man to start. You need capital or some form of miracle.”
Cookie: “You need leverage.”
King-Lu: “Or a crime.”
The conversation above takes place about one third into Kelly Reichardt’s phenomenal “First Cow” (2019). The themes that she deals with have only gotten richer and more poignant since it was made. Reichardt’s filmography studies the notion of the American dream and our national identity – and “First Cow” continues that exploration. As in her prior work “Meek’s Cutoff” (2011) when her characters were settlers on the Oregon trail in 1840, the protagonists in this tale find themselves seeking fortune in the 1820s Northwest – a burgeoning and unforgiving world. “I see something in this land I haven’t seen before,” says King-Lu who is an immigrant from China and has traveled round the world. “Pretty much everywhere’s been touched by now. But this is still new.”
I have always been an avid admirer of Riechardt’s work and consider her to be one of the most distinctive voices in the movies in this day and age. I meant to feature “First Cow” in the Summer to coincide with its delayed theatrical expansion. Ultimately not knowing when it would be available, I recommended her earlier film “Meek’s Cutoff.” I had seen “First Cow” when it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival back in September 2019 and was captivated. It was in limited release in March when COVID-19 hit, and the studio – knowing this film deserved theatrical exposure – pulled it in hopes of rolling it out again later, at a more opportune time. If we’ve learned anything this year, it is that nothing goes as planned. It is now available for you to appreciate it on Showtime. Recently it was the independent film that got the most Gotham Award nominations for 2020 including Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Critics have been consistently been heralding it as one of their favorites of the year, and it is all well-deserved. This is truly something special that demands your attention. It is extremely stirring in its simplicity, emotional scope and beauty. It moves deliberately – requiring your patience – but the view at the top is worth it.
It is an adaptation of the novel “The Half-Life,” written by Reichardt’s regular co-screenwriter John Raymond. Cookie Figowitz has been trekking through Oregon as a cook for a hot-blooded group of fur trappers when he comes across King-Lu, who is naked in the woods and running away from Russians. “I may have killed one of their friends,” he states, matter-of-fact. Cookie gives him refuge in his tent overnight – the following day King-Lu is gone. Later, Cookie is done with his job and has stopped at a small, unruly town where he comes across King-Lu again. He is now in the position of offering Cookie shelter in his small shack. They notice that a rich landowner – Chief Factor – has had the first cow in the territory shipped in – and that Cookie could use some of the milk to make biscuits. After tasting them, King-Lu suggests selling them in the town. They have an opportunity to set themselves up for a better place in life. “We got a window here, Cookie,” emphasizes King-Lu.
Their scheme involves milking the cow late at night from underneath Chief Factor’s nose. Their biscuits become very popular – and Chief Factor shows up to try them. “I taste London in this cake,” exclaims Chief Factor upon sampling. He asks Cookie if he can come to his house and cook a “clafoutis” to impress one his guests. “This is a dangerous game we’re playing,” King-Lu comments.
It all plays like a fable about capitalism in America and its effect on immigrants as well as the working class – put in a situation in which they are pressed to succeed at whatever cost. At its heart, though, it’s about this unlikely friendship – tenderly observed. One gorgeous scene takes place when King-Lu brings Cookie to his hut – and the men move instinctually around the room. “You make yourself easy,” says King-Lu. “I’ll get a fire going.” The camera will linger as Cookie looks around and King-Lu chops wood outside. Cookie takes off his sack and then starts sweeping the floor. He picks out some flowers and puts them in a vase. When King-Lu comes back, he casually remarks, “Looks better already.” It’s a bittersweet film – and so incisive.
And there are some offbeat funny moments. In particular, the way Cookie engages with the cow as he extracts her milk.
Cookie: “Hello how are you? Didn’t expect company this late at night did you. Well, here we are.”
Available to stream on FuboTV, DIRECTV and on SHOWTIME Anytime/Showtime via subscription, Prime Video and Hulu. Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Redbox, Apple TV, FandangoNOW and Mubi.
Screenplay by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Based on the novel by Jonathan Raymond
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shephard, Gary Farmer
and Lily Gladstone
Bringing “First Cow” to the Screen
“It was the first thing I read by Jon. I met Jon through Todd Haynes when Todd moved to Portland, around the first time I came to visit Todd, which must’ve been 2000, maybe. I have such a bad memory. But I read ‘The Half-Life’ when I was driving across the country and going to Kansas. I was in a little ‘In Cold Blood’ phase and I was going to visit the courthouse and blah blah blah. Ultimately, I ended up in LA. But I had my dog Lucy at the time and I was reading his book and in Kansas I finished it and I remember in the motel room that day I just got distracted from the ‘In Cold Blood’ thing by his book. So I wrote Jon. I had met him but I didn’t really know him, so I asked him if he had any short stories that were super small and took place outside that I could write a dog into. He sent me “Old Joy” and that became the beginning of our collaboration. He was like, “Here, take this.” It had come out in a book of photographs with Justine Kurland and he didn’t really expect anything to come of it. I found his first email to me recently and it was, “Yeah, sure.” Then over the years — I can’t even say how far back — we’ve just come back to this idea of ‘The Half-Life,’ but it spans 40 years and two continents and it was nothing I could get my arms around. Sometimes we’d play with the idea of just doing the contemporary part or just doing the other part. Then, I’d been working on another project with a different Portland writer and I was trying to make a film in Europe for a couple of years and it was just not happening. But I’d been scouting all these little villages in Slovakia from the early 1800s and looking at all this artwork, like [French painter Gustave] Courbet type of imagery, and Homer. Not wanting to let go all of that. I went back to Portland and we talked about ‘The Half-Life’ again,’ a conversion we’ve had a million times, but I reread the book and I decided its definitely the 1800s section I want to focus on. Then we started scheming.” (thrillist.com_
Writer/Director Kelly Reichardt on the Research for “First Cow”
Reichardt’s research into the unique historical setting was “a big team effort,” she says. Raymond forged a relationship with the Grand Ronde, a confederation of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, who generously gave the production access to their library and even lent them canoes (“though they haven’t even seen the film yet and they’re definitely not responsible in any way for anything that’s in the film,” Reichardt clarifies). An old friend of producer Neil Kopp speaks the Chinook Jargon spoken in the film and advised on the language as well as helping Magaro and Lee develop their survival skills: “He had a bunch of frozen squirrels, sort of roadkill squirrels in his freezer, and taught those guys how to skin a squirrel and build a fire without matches and all that sort of stuff,” Reichardt says. “They went out to a rainy three-day camping trip as soon as they got here — that’s sort of how they got to know each other.” But the research wasn’t all roadkill squirrels and rainy camping: “When we discovered the name of oily-cakes, these kinds of hole-less donuts, we were very excited, of course,” Reichardt says. “I really like filming the process of things, and Cookie is a cook, and he’s an artist in that way. We see him out of his element in so many situations, and then when he’s down sort of on the ground talking to the cow, [and] when he’s in the hut going through the whole process of cooking, we just get to see him in his element.”
While “down-to-earth” Cookie milks the cow on the ground, “the more aspirational King Lu is up in the tree,” Reichardt points out, and Magaro and Lee’s contrasts, and excellent chemistry, gives “First Cow” its beating heart. Theirs is a bitter existence, made a little more palatable by the sweetnesses of friendship and oily-cakes. It’s also a man’s world — but for the undeniable feminine power of the film’s true queen, Eve the cow. “She was super sweet,” Reichardt says of the aptly named bovine superstar, who nevertheless, um, resisted direction. The filmmaker had previously learned her lesson, that “you come around to how to work with the animal; it’s not so much that [an animal] comes around to learn to work with a film crew,” by shooting with horses on 2016’s Certain Women. Still, “it’s amazing what happens when you’re shooting in the night and your whole crew is moving slowly, in sync and quiet,” Reichardt remembers fondly of their magical night shoots with Eve. “But I mean, if [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt never has to shoot another cow or horse, I’m sure he’ll be very happy.” (ew.com)
About Author and Screenwriter Jonathan Raymond
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, and the short story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He is also the screenwriter of the film “Meek’s Cutoff” and co-writer of the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” winner of five Emmy Awards. Raymond’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Village Voice, Bookforum, Artforum, Playboy, Zoetrope, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon. (tinhouse.com)
About Director and Screenwriter Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt was born and raised in Miami-Dade Country, Florida, to a family of police officers. She had an interest in photography from a very young age. She started by using her father’s camera, which he used for photographing crime scenes. She went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. In the summer of 2005, Reichardt directed Old Joy, which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first American film to win the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival and opened at the Film Forum in New York City. Reichardt’s first feature, River of Grass (1994), a sun-drenched noir that was shot in her hometown of Dade County, was cited as one of the best films of 1995 by the Boston Globe, Village Voice, Film Comment, the New York Daily News, Paper Magazine and the San Francisco Guardian.” (filmindependent.org)…”Reichardt is an award-winning independent filmmaker whose most recent work, “First Cow,” was screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. Other films include “Certain Women,” starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone, which premiered at the 2016 New York Film Festival; “Night Moves” (2013), “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), “Old Joy” ( 2006), and “River of Grass” (1994). Honors received include a United States Artists Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Anonymous Was a Woman Award, and Renew Media Fellowship. Her work has been screened at the Whitney Biennial (2012), Film Forum, Cannes Film Festival in “un certain regard,” Venice International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and BFI London Film Festival; with retrospectives at Anthology Film Archives, Pacific Film Archive, Museum of the Moving Image, Walker Art Center, and American Cinematheque Los Angeles. She previously taught at New York University, SUNY Buffalo, Columbia University, and the School of Visual Arts.” (bard.edu)