Kelly Reichardt’s new film, First Cow, is a buddy flick about two guys on the frontier in the Pacific Northwest stealing milk from a rich man’s cow and using it to bake confections for profit. It’s about capitalism. Or maybe it’s about tender, platonic love between pals. It could be about the evils of animal agriculture, or it could be about America™. For her it’s about getting into the narrative on a granular level. It’s about inhabiting the film itself. Whatever other themes or subtext a person can shake out of that, all the better.
This is, perhaps, most true for First Cow, which, apart from being impeccably made and acted, is devoutly sweethearted and surprisingly funny. Stars John Magaro, playing baker Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, and Orion Lee, as Chinese entrepreneur King Lu, have terrific chemistry, and the set-up is so plain spoken that the film’s comic and compassionate elements sing all the clearer for it.
Paste chatted up Reichardt about galaxy brain takes on what First Cow means for audiences in 2020, and the advantages of exploring current social dynamics with a period movie.
Paste Magazine: I’ve heard you describe this as a heist film, which I think fits, but I think of it more as a buddy comedy, which I guess is not necessarily something I would’ve expected from a movie like this.
Kelly Reichardt: That’s how Orion Lee thought of it. He kept watching buddy movies. But yeah, I guess so. Sure! They’re buddies. They get into capers. They get into trouble.
Paste: When I think of your movies, I think of the tenderness between these two male characters. Is that a really timely thing for us to be talking about right now? Affection between male friends?
Reichardt: Well, I don’t know about that specifically, but it did feel nice to just go into a world and sort of hunker down with two people. I don’t know, it’s hard. I don’t want to say anything that sounds too giant. Maybe at this time, yes, a little kindness is nice. Ken Loach says, after his whole life of making films, and he’s still making films, that art doesn’t change anything, or movies don’t. I hope that’s not true. It’s at least a good place to go to just to know that the whole world isn’t this other noise and that these other things exist.
Paste: A phrase that’s thrown around a lot is “toxic masculinity”; this is an interesting period you’ve set the movie in where that toxicity is rampant, where brutal macho stances are the norm.
Reichardt: Yeah. That gives a good place to set up some people like Cookie and King Lu, so they can be the Others. The tradition of the rough and tumble in the Western is already implied as being there, so you don’t have to do that much of that work. We have our big Muppet-like trappers who are always scuffling around and beating each other up. A lot of the work’s been done with the stories of the West, and so you have all that to work against, which is helpful.
Paste: So the setting does a little bit of that legwork for the movie? Do you feel like that’s a better way to approach talking about the subject of, again, that brutal macho performativity rather than putting it in modern times?
Reichardt: Yeah, it is easier. I think it is nice to have distance from it. I wouldn’t want to make a contemporary film on that topic, that’s for sure. That would be just so depressing, for one thing. [laughs] Mostly, I should say, these characters existed in the novel, The Half Life, which, I mean, they really stick with you. They did with me anyway, long after I read the novel and enough that I kept coming back to it. So I think it’s more particularly about just liking these guys in a way. It’s pretty cool just getting to create this world for them. It’s nice to have two strong characters, characters that come from a piece of writing where they have some depth and life to them. They’re more people than characters. So, yeah, that’s a big boost up from the beginning.
Paste: I love that you’re describing the idea of a story about male relationships set today as depressing. Do you think—20, 30, 100 years from now—that someone will be able to successfully make a movie about problems with masculinity today?
Reichardt: Well, we’ll all be dead from the plague by then, this pandemic. That’ll be over. But people still love the strong man. It’s not like that’s a thing of the past. People love the strong white hero who has all the answers, or all the strength, that saves the day. That goes on forever.
Paste: Do you feel like not having the answers is maybe more profound than having the answers? What does King Lu say? “History isn’t here yet”? I’m probably butchering the line.
Reichardt: No, you got it. “History hasn’t gotten here yet.” But I like ambiguity in these stories. Life is complex. People are complex. There are no heroes in this film. Everybody’s pretty flawed. It’s hard for me to think of things in the big, objective, how everything fits into the world way. I really am more dealing with the behavior of the people that are in this movie.
Paste: It’s weird to describe this movie as escapism, but I do feel like this movie lets us get away from where we are now. Do you hope that by letting us get away, we can come back to where we are, reassess it, and develop new appreciation for it?
Reichardt: You’re very outside the movie! I guess I can’t have such grand aspirations. I’m just hoping that people will be brave enough to go to the movie theater, and not get scared and stay home! [laughs] You know, I just really get inside it. I’m inside the world with [the characters], and in the small moment to moment moment stuff. I hope everything comes across and people are moved, or people might laugh, or that the film will speak to them, but I can’t have bigger ideas about what everyone will compare it to. Everyone’s just, I guess, doing what they can to get through the moment that we live in.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.