‘Certain Women’ director Kelly Reichardt on capturing the real foundations of America in ‘First Cow’ | Movie News

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Dogs are a regular feature of American auteur Kelly Reichardt’s emotionally rhythmic films. They often help working-class humans trace quietly affecting journeys through the grand majesty of that nation’s most beautiful stretches. A dog is central to the plot of Wendy and Lucy, starring three-time Reichardt collaborator Michelle Williams – who also appears in Certain Women and Meek’s Cutoff – as a financially stressed young woman trying to make a fresh start.

That film is based on a short story by author Jon Raymond, Reichardt’s regular co-writer. Ever-present, dogs also pop up in their latest collaboration, First Cow, an adaptation of his novel The Half-Life that they spent the best part of a decade wrangling into this engrossing story.

Set by the water in Oregon, in the early and often brutal days of colonisation, it features a bovine beauty who lends her name to the film’s title. There’s also a pesky cat, which proves pivotal in a final-act unravelling signalled by the film’s contemporary prelude featuring Search Party star Alia Shawkat. And horses also shoe their way into the action.

“It’s great having dogs around and all that, but cows and horses and cats, they’re harder,” Reichardt notes with a knowing smile. “Working with animals is actually hard, you know. I mean, they’re lovely, and [Evie the cow] was pretty sweet and awesome. She really was. She’s a big, dewy eyed creature, easy to love. And it turns out treats go a long way with all animals.”

Wrangling their whims is all part of the Reichardt magic, one of the best writer/directors working in America right now. In First Cow, Orange is the New Black and The Umbrella Academy star John Magaro plays a gentle cook, amusingly nicknamed Cookie. He’s ill-suited to the mean ways of a band of money-hungry, possibly murderous fur trappers. Cookie finds an unforeseen way out when he stumbles across Chinese prospector King-Lu, played by Hong Kong-born Australian actor Orion Lee, shivering naked and hungry in the woods.

Forming an unexpected partnership, they set up home and hit upon the canny idea of stealing pales of milk from said cow. Or rather from the supercilious British overlord who imported her to lighten his tea, as played with sneering glee by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy star Toby Jones. In an act of culinary alchemy, Cookie transforms the purloined milk into oily cakes that have the residents of a ramshackle outpost jostling for more. He and King-Lu save up their spoils, dreaming of opening a hotel and/or bakery in San Francisco one fine day.

“It’s the very beginning of capitalism in an area that’s not yet America,” Reichardt says. “We’re watching these two men trying to find their place in a new economy that’s happening around the beaver trade. Trying to get on the lower rungs of that ladder and crawl their way up.”

But this moment in time is fraught. “It’s the beginning of complete hubris, that everything’s available and for the taking for whoever’s got the most guns, basically… What does this trade do to the beaver and, you know, the natural world, and the people who have lived on what is now called the Columbia River for aeons before such companies arrived?” 

Her film writes back in the people sidelined by America’s foundational myth, including Chinese and Russian immigrants drawn by the Gold Rush, and the First Nations people whose lands were stolen. Certain Women lead Lily Gladstone makes a welcome return here as the wife of Jones’ Chief Factor. “Lily really came in and she’s the one who had a handle on the Chinook jargon,” Reichardt says. “Everyone else was working, working, working, right up to the minute of reading the lines [on camera]. Lily worked with her grandmother, came in and acted like it was a language she’d been speaking all her life. The moments with her are really significant.”

A fan of TV show Detectorists, Reichardt relished working with Jones, and also with Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner as one of his henchmen. First Cow has a lot of small but memorable supporting roles, and the actors inhabit their surrounds like naturals. Production designer Anthony Gasparro’s art department team created the humble town they call home. “It was the first time I really had things built for a film, which is really, really fun,” Reichardt says. “You can design your shots first and have something built around it.”

It also helped the actors sink into their characters, including a fleeting but fantastic appearance by the late, great René Auberjonois as a raven-owning local who’s grumpy at the over-development of the three-home village. “He really made the most of it,” Reichardt says. “They lived there in their clothes for like, a week, so they were hanging out at the bar all day in a scene, then hanging out drinking real beers all night, getting smelly. It wasn’t like [Robert Altman’s 1971 Western] McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where they lived there for six months. We had a much shorter amount of time, but you’re outside in this chilly weather together, and you’re building fires, figuring out physical things together.”

That lived reality helped Magaro and Lee bond on a camping trip before the shoot began. When I muse that their kind and caring partnership subverts many Western tropes, Reichardt doesn’t quite see it that way. “This is their situation, this is what they’re doing right now, and I really tried to keep myself in it on that level, as opposed to making a film about changing masculine stereotypes,” she insists. “I’m sure there must have been some people out in the West that wondered what the fuck they were doing out there and how they were going to survive it?”

A feeling probably shared by quite a few pups, not to mention cows, horses, cats and beavers.

First Cow is in Australian cinemas from Thursday 29 April.

Follow the author @SARussellwords


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