Kelly Reichardt was at the Berlin Film Festival when it first occurred to her that the release of “First Cow” might not go as planned. Her tender portrait of Cookie (John Magaro), a soft-spoken cook, and Chinese immigrant King (Orion Lee) in the Oregon Territory of 1820 brings a poignant flourish to her understated style. It also marks her first collaboration with A24, which hoped to build word of mouth: The movie found fans last fall in Telluride and in Reichardt’s hometown of New York; Berlin was the final festival stop before its March 6 theatrical release in North America.
As “First Cow” screened in Berlin’s competition, the coronavirus snaked through Europe, including a ballooning set of cases in Milan. “The virus was really hitting Italy,” Reichardt said. “I remember stepping into the crowded lobby of the hotel where I was staying and wondering if we would all regret this.”
It didn’t take long to find out. A24 opened “First Cow” in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 6, just as both cities began to feel the virus’ impact. Two days after its release, with 76 reported cases across New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. A week later, when the movie was set to expand to other cities, theaters started closing around the country. On March 15, the distributor pulled “First Cow” from release, announcing intentions to reopen it “later this year, once the marketplace has rebounded from the limitations presented by COVID-19.”
That hasn’t happened yet, and the journey of “First Cow” has taken another turn. With the timeline for reopening theaters still unclear, the movie will become available for purchase on VOD platforms July 10 and rental on July 21.
Sources at A24 said they hoped to plan special theatrical events for the film later in the year, but as the virus spikes around the country, such possibilities remain hypothetical at best. The company tried to schedule a July 17 day-and-date release of horror film “Saint Maude,” an effort that met widespread backlash (and, as major summer tentpoles have shifted from July to August, it seems unlikely to open then). “First Cow” is avoiding that fate, marking the first major 2020 title from the theatrically oriented distributor to become available on digital platforms without first completing its theatrical run.
Reichardt is a big-screen purist whose quiet, layered narratives benefit from the quality control of the theatrical experience, but she’s been forced to come to terms with an unusual set of circumstances. “When I’m living in New York, it’s easy to be down on VOD, because there are so many art houses,” she said. “In a dream world, we would all be going to the movies, but since we aren’t, there’s this option.”
After Berlin, Reichardt traveled from New York to Los Angeles and back to New York. “Along the way, we started washing our hands more and more,” she said. “When we were back in New York, the stores were selling out of Clorox wipes.” A few days later, she was in Cambridge for a retrospective of her work at the Harvard Film Archives when the university closed. “When Harvard shut down, we finally called it a day,” she said.
By March 11, she was home under quarantine with the rest of her tour canceled. “I don’t know where we thought things were headed,” she said. “I couldn’t have imagined that in three more months, there would be 126,000 deaths in the U.S. I wonder where in the story we are now.”
Fans of Reichardt’s work may already see some of its biggest concerns resonating in the national mood. Over the last 20 years, Reichardt’s oeuvre wrestled with the alienating aspects of American identity, pitting angry and disoriented figures against powerful natural landscapes and an ambivalent society. From the soul-searching hikers in the Bush-era “Old Joy” to the nomadic woman searching for her missing dog in “Wendy and Lucy” and environmental activists in “Night Moves,” Reichardt’s characters wrestle with a broken world. With “First Cow,” she returns to the nascent era of American civilization she last explored 10 years ago with the meditative western “Meek’s Cutoff,” this time with a more intimate two-hander.
Adapting a novel by regular co-writer John Raymond, Reichardt presents a set of characters who become unlikely allies in a barren land: They both see the potential to build a pastry business by stealing milk from the region’s sole cow. The drama takes on a charming, bittersweet quality as these two likable young men are drawn to the potential of establishing themselves in a young country by cutting corners, yielding an unmistakable allegory for the corrosive impact of a society steeped in the drive to succeed at all costs.
In an interview a few days before the film’s initial release, Reichardt touched on her desire to deconstruct aspects of the country’s identity by exposing its flaws. “Our ideas are repeated in several films,” she said, noting “the idea of the American mythology, how capitalism plays in with the natural world, and this idea that if you have initiative, you can just pick yourself up and put yourself in a better place in life. Supposedly, America offers that.”
Revisiting the movie this week, she recognized that its central themes had taken on more specific ramifications. “‘First Cow’ deals with issues of race and immigration,” she said. “It feels very relevant to me.”
While Reichardt’s subtle filmmaking won’t generate the blockbuster VOD figures that welcomed, say, “Trolls World Tour,” it guarantees a more immediate opportunity for audiences nationwide to access her work than anything she has made before. That’s unusual for the intellectual Bard film professor who seems more inclined toward the avant-garde crowd than making movies for the masses. In March, she mused on how frequently interviewers asked about whether she had Hollywood ambitions.
“It is strange to me that people think Hollywood is the greatest end game, where the most interesting people are,” she said. “What other profession has this absolute place where you have to end up?” Talk to Reichardt long enough and her cerebral tone makes room for the occasional dry wit. “Yes, I wanted to reach a huge audience, so I made a film about somebody stealing milk from a cow with two unknown actors,” she said, and chuckled. “I guess it is a heist movie, though. It’s fun to think of the films like that, but I’m never under the impression that they’re for everybody.”
While Reichardt’s movies have never been huge moneymakers, she has found an engaged audience on the festival circuit, where the specific nature of her subject matter generates a diverse set of reactions from around the world. “It’s cool when someone outside the world of moviedom sees a movie with some view of America that isn’t completely celebrating itself,” she said. Asked if she had any advice for viewers watching “First Cow” at home, the wit came back. “Set your TV for the least amount of sharpness possible, [in a] completely dark room, with a single hit of Sativa for afternoon viewing,” she said.
Reichardt added that if she had known the film would head to VOD, she might have reconsidered the 4:3 aspect ratio and spent more time on color correction. But she and her longtime cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt “are always focused on the theatrical, so a lot of the decisions are made along the way with the theater in mind,” she said. Her producer Anish Savjani had long pressured the pair to consider technical ramifications suited for home viewing, she added, but “we never listen.”
Reichardt offered a measure of appreciation for the impact of the VOD market for audiences outside big cities. “It’s incredible to have all these films from around the world, and from the earliest days of cinema, at your disposal,” she said. “Not that I’ve been taking advantage of it. I haven’t been watching much these days.” In terms of long-term plans for “First Cow,” Reichardt sounded as if her priorities had shifted once more. “A theater screening here and there would be lovely,” she said. “I hope it’ll have a theatrical life down the line in a virus-free, Trump-free future.”
“First Cow” will be available for purchase on VOD platforms on July 10 and for rental July 21.