Kelly Reichardt: the quiet American

Set among fur-trappers in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow captures the origins of modern American entrepreneurial culture with the same deceptive quiet and rich detail she has brought to all her work. She talks about how seeing, not showing, has been her motto, and why she has never watched Star Wars.

25 May 2021

By Ryan Gilbey

Sight and Sound
Kelly Reichardt
Miranda Penn Turin/Contour by Getty Images

 ▶ First Cow is screening in UK cinemas from 28 May and on Mubi from 9 July.

The BBC Radio 4 comedy show I’ve Never Seen Star Wars, which ran from 2009 to 2015, invited a different celebrity each week to sample new experiences: Ian Hislop tried on jeans for the first time, Meera Syal watched Last Tango in Paris (1972), Dame Joan Bakewell took a beatboxing lesson and listened to Arctic Monkeys.

Had Kelly Reichardt appeared as a guest, she could simply have plumped for the obvious choice. “I’ve never seen Star Wars,” admits the 57-year-old filmmaker over Zoom from her home in Portland, Oregon. “I remember standing in line for it as a kid, and it being all the rage, and then I fell asleep in it.”

How amusing that the hurtling spaceships and fizzing light-sabres of that 1977 blockbuster couldn’t hold the attention of the young Reichardt, who would grow up to make some of the slowest, quietest films in US cinema. Her seven features to date are, without exception, hushed (though rarely tranquil), devoid of fast cutting or special effects, and pointedly low on incident, give or take the destruction of a hydro-electric dam by eco-warriors in the thriller Night Moves (2013), or a minor siege situation in the portmanteau drama Certain Women (2016).

First Cow (2019)

The action in her latest film, First Cow, revolves around a series of thefts, but Heat this is not. All that gets pilfered are a few buckets of milk. Expectations in Reichardt’s work tend to be frustrated or redirected rather than fulfilled. That die was cast with her 1994 debut, River of Grass, in which a couple go on the lam in the Florida Everglades after killing a stranger, only to discover later to their dismay that no one died (“If we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything”). Meek’s Cutoff (2010) depicted in sweaty detail a punishing, hazardous journey along the Oregon Trail in 1845, then had the audacity to end on a cliffhanger to rival John Sayles’s Limbo (1999) or the 2007 finale to The Sopranos.

Or, for that matter, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). George Lucas’s franchise would never have cropped up in our conversation had I not mistaken the opening shot of First Cow for a movie in-joke. The picture, which premiered at Telluride in 2019 before its release was delayed by the pandemic, is set among the fur trappers, immigrants and fledgling entrepreneurs of the Pacific Northwest in 1820. Except, that is, for a brief modern-day prologue on the Columbia River, in which a barge inches gradually into view from left of frame. On and on it goes, the camera holding steady, until we start to wonder exactly how long this barge is, and whether it will ever end. A gag at the expense of Star Wars – right?

Someone like Peter Hutton makes you realise you can take your time. It’s about the difference between showing an audience something, and letting an audience see something.

“I don’t know my Star Wars,” Reichardt says apologetically. “Why, is there a ship in it?” I describe the opening of that movie, where a vast spacecraft whooshes overhead, filling the frame. The penny drops: “Oh, that iconic shot!” she says.

She is polite enough not to point out that my guess couldn’t have been farther from the mark. The image, she explains, is a tribute to her late friend and colleague Peter Hutton, the pioneering non-narrative filmmaker to whom First Cow is dedicated. It was Hutton, a contemporary of the director James Benning, who brought Reichardt to Bard College in New York (where she still teaches) following her second feature, Old Joy (2006), about two estranged friends who reunite for a weekend hike. She made that film, she says now, expressly in the hope of getting on to Hutton’s radar.

River of Grass (1994)

“Peter was a big influence on me. He shot on ships and boats with a 16mm camera, and made a lot of films on the Hudson River and in the Hudson Valley area, always silent. Someone like Peter makes you realise you can take your time. It’s about the difference between showing an audience something, and letting an audience see something. Those are things I can keep from his way of working.”

Down and dirty

Hutton, who died in 2016, isn’t the only notable influence on the new picture. As Reichardt says, First Cow is about “the very beginning of the story of commerce, before America is really even America”. Any film that deals on a grassroots level with that subject is following in the muddy footprints of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). “That’s a film I love,” she says. “I knew when I was building the town that it was all very McCabe, almost a miniature version of that film, so I was, like, ‘Oh well, let’s just own that I’m influenced by this, and bring in René.’”

That’s René Auberjonois, the beaky character actor who played the innkeeper in Altman’s film. Reichardt cast him as a curmudgeon in Certain Women, then gave him a one-line cameo in First Cow as ‘Man with Raven’ – an inadvertent homage to another Altman picture, Brewster McCloud (1970), in which Auberjonois was an ornithologist who gradually turns into a bird.

His presence in First Cow feels talismanic and, in the wake of his death in 2019, inescapably poignant. “I wrote the part for him,” she recalls. “I said, ‘OK, you’re gonna have a bird and live in a shack, and you’re feeling annoyed by the fourth house that’s being built in the town. It’s like gentrification is already bumming you out.’ He really went a long way with the scraps he was given.”

Kelly Reichardt with Orion Lee behind the scenes of First Cow (2019)

Then again, every crumb in Reichardt’s world represents a banquet of detail. A depth of research and experience is packed tightly into each corner of the mise en scène, each actor’s movements and mannerisms. She favours chores over rehearsal; if her cast are performing the tasks and routines of their characters for real, then she has succeeded in manufacturing what the New York Times described as “conditions in which actors cannot act”. Lily Gladstone in Certain Women really is fulfilling all the duties demanded of a ranch hand. And after attending “pioneer camp”, the cast of Meek’s Cutoff really could survive in the desert. There was nothing cosmetic, either, about the dirt on their stinking costumes. “They staged a mutiny, so I allowed them one wash,” says Reichardt, making her measly compromise sound like an unimaginable indulgence.

That immersive approach extended to First Cow. “The actors were building fires and learning how to set traps and all those things. They have to concentrate on what they’re doing, and then they don’t have to perform.” The film’s amiable partners-in-crime are Cookie (John Magaro), a trappers’ cook, and the Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who whip up batches of misshapen doughnuts, which they then take to market. The treats sell like, well, hot cakes. Among the salivating customers queuing each day for them is the wealthy, melancholy Englishman (Toby Jones) whose imported cow is – unbeknown to him – the source of the recipe’s creaminess.

In the manner of those actors who brag about performing their own stunts, Magaro can boast of doing all his own milking and baking. “He really got into it,” says Reichardt. “And Toby loved the cakes. It’s fried bread. What’s not to love?”

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Friendship in the movie provides Cookie and King Lu with wealth beyond money, sweetness beyond doughnuts. Reichardt calls the central dynamic “the opposite of Old Joy, where the two friends realise they don’t have much in common any more. Here you get this friendship growing from the beginning.”

The two leads met for the first time shortly before shooting began. “They went off for a little survivalist weekend in the woods in their costumes, and got to know one another. Just by happenstance, Orion does have a lot of King Lu in him and Magaro has a lot of Cookie. Orion is a lover of big films. He’s actually in a Star Wars movie! [Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, 2017]. So he was always, like, ‘Is this even coming across?’ He had the film in mind, not just the scene. Whereas Magaro likes to work in his own head. His questions were more like: ‘This paper I’m rolling this cigarette with, is it the right kind of…?’ It was so much fun looking through the camera and seeing this friendship unfolding in front of me.”

Reichardt and her regular co-writer Jon Raymond adapted the screenplay from the latter’s 2004 novel The Half-Life, pruning and reshaping it radically along the way. They had to: with its two-pronged narrative alternating between the 1820s and the 1980s, and spanning several continents, a strictly faithful screen version would have run to tens of millions of dollars at least. (That said, it wasn’t all cutbacks: there is no cow in the book.)

The director was already a fan of The Half-Life when she was introduced to Raymond back in 2005 by their mutual friend, Todd Haynes. She asked the novelist if he had anything smaller that she could turn into a film. Hence Old Joy, from one of his short stories, with its modest dramatis personae (two men and a dog) and meagre budget ($30,000).

First class

Old Joy was a turning point in Reichardt’s career for several reasons. As well as marking the start of her partnership with Raymond, who has co-written all her subsequent films except Certain Women (which she adapted from stories by Maile Meloy), it also landed her that coveted gig at Bard.

Kelly Reichardt with Toby Jones behind the scenes of First Cow (2019)

Her classes sound like a hoot. For part of the semester, she gets her students to remake other directors’ movies. “Sometimes, I’ll give them a Melville film, and they have to use their crappy equipment to do scenes that are super elegant and elaborate.” Last year, it was Mike Leigh’s fraught, funny Grown-Ups (1980). “There were these bad British accents all over the place,” she laughs. “But it’s a good way to deconstruct a film, and to have the students think about why someone puts a camera in a certain place, or uses a particular lens.”

You still don’t see women who have the career of Todd Haynes or Gus Van Sant or Wes Anderson, or any of those men who make personal films.

Most of all, Old Joy was significant for bringing her back to feature-length films more than a decade after River of Grass. When we first met in 2011 at her producers’ office in Brooklyn, she explained that her enforced hiatus from features could be blamed partly on old-fashioned sexism: “It had a lot to do with being a woman. That’s definitely a factor in raising money.” She pointed out that “you still don’t see women who have the career of Todd or Gus [Van Sant] or Wes Anderson, or any of those men who make personal films”. Even having a star on board didn’t help. Touting a potential project with Alfre Woodard, she was informed during one meeting that, as a female director with a Black female star, she was now doubly disadvantaged.

Reichardt filled those years teaching unhappily at NYU, making short films on Super 8, and working, somewhat incongruously, on the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model. While River of Grass had a tentative, whimsical voice that was not yet quite her own, she found and finessed with Old Joy the filmmaking sensibility which persists in her work today.

Along with Debra Granik and Chloé Zhao, Reichardt is one of US cinema’s most acute poets of the marginalised. Her speciality is unpicking and dramatising the damage wreaked by social structures. Many of her characters are casualties of capitalism, and none plunges harder or faster into the abyss than Wendy, the crisis-stricken protagonist of Wendy and Lucy (2008), played by Michelle Williams in the first of her collaborations with Reichardt. (Their next film, the art-world comedy Showing Up, starts shooting later this year, and will bring the tally to four.)

Night Moves (2013)

Having fallen off the map economically and socially, Wendy lives out of her car while looking for work, and counts as her only friend the scrawny mutt Lucy. The film is pitiless in its exploration of a booby-trapped breadline America, and short on mollifying consolations about the human spirit. No wonder Bong Joon Ho, who shares her X-ray vision for class-based injustices, rushed to proclaim himself a fan after Reichardt was part of the Cannes jury which awarded Parasite the Palme d’Or in 2019.

It’s always interesting to me who has the power and who doesn’t. That’s there throughout the films – the question of society.

It feels as though she has come full circle with First Cow, returning to the novel which originally stoked her friendship with Raymond. At two hours, it is her longest film to date, though she is proud to have brought even this distilled, abbreviated version of the book in at that length: “The fact that we got it so small, so short, was quite an accomplishment.” Not that she pays much attention to running times. “I don’t have that sort of brain. Though I remember when I first sent River of Grass to Sundance, they sent it back because it wasn’t long enough to be a feature. So I just slowed down the end credits to make it crawl over the line.”

Reichardt has an amused, affable disposition, but she appreciates the pitfalls of discussing in any detail the elusive movies she makes. Ask her about the ways in which First Cow intersects with our times, and she winces. “I don’t want to sum it up,” she says. “But the big topic when we were making the film was immigration. It’s always interesting to me thinking about who has the power and who doesn’t. I think that’s there throughout all the films – the question of society, and who we are to each other, and what our obligations are. It’s that idea in the American outlook: ‘We’re all in it together’ versus ‘each man for himself’. Those are constant themes for me. At some point after those early conversations, you want all that shit to go away so you can just look at your characters and go, ‘This is the story I’m telling.’”

She seems concerned that she has said too much. “You make a film where you’re trying carefully not to say something, and then you spend the next year or so saying it.” But she needn’t worry: her movies have mystery enough. No amount of conversation will milk them dry.

Further reading

First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s milk-rustling western rises like a treat

By Nick James

First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s milk-rustling western rises like a treat

Film of the week: Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Montana triptych

By Kate Stables

Film of the week: Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Montana triptych

Film of the week: Night Moves

By Adam Nayman

Film of the week: Night Moves

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