What is First Cow Based on?

Kelly Reichardt is a pillar of American independent cinema, and one of the finest filmmakers of our time. Known for her quiet, minimalist storytelling and explorations of the Pacific Northwest, Reichbart can undoubtedly be considered a pioneer of contemporary slow cinema. With ‘First Cow‘ she crafts yet another poignant masterpiece that subtly explores early American capitalism through a tale of companionship between two men.

Set in the Oregon territory of 1820s, ‘First Cow’ marks Reichardt’s return to the Pacific Northwest. The film looks at nature, companionship and the beginnings of the American dream through a tale of two drifters with dreams. It centers around Cookie Figowitz, a cook who hopes to own a bakery one day, as he teams up with King Lu, a Chinese worker, in order to steal milk from the first cow in the territory.

The plan is to make baked delicacies with the milk and sell it to the community. Their “oily cakes” immediately become a raging success has the folks literally fighting over them. Ironically, it is the owner of the cow, the chief factor, who cannot get over the scones, and begins to invite the duo over to bake for his guests. This, however, complicates Cookie and King’s plans as they get closer to being exposed. ‘First Cow’ is such a distinctive period piece that one can’t help but wonder if it is based on true events. If you’re wondering what inspired the film, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know.

Is ‘First Cow’ Based on a True Story?

First Cow filming locations

To answer simply, no, ‘First Cow’ is not based on a true story. It is, however, based on a novel by Jonathan Raymond titled, ‘The Half Life’. Raymond is an Oregon-based writer, best-known for his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. The two have previously worked together on ‘Old Joy’, ‘Wendy and Lucy’, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’, and ‘Night Moves’. ‘First Cow’ marks another one of their collaborations with Raymond co-writing the screenplay with Reichardt, who also directs it.

Raymond’s ‘The Half Life‘ is his debut novel which was first published in 2004. The original story revolves around two parallel narratives, both of which take place in Oregon. While ‘First Cow’ does use parts of the second narrative as a prelude and in its conclusion, it largely focuses on Cookie’s tale and his friendship with King Lu from 1820s. In the book, however, Cookie befriends a refugee named Henry, and the narrative follows their companionship.

In ‘The Half Life’, the other narrative takes place 160 years later, in 1980s, and centers around another tale of companionship between Tina and Trixie. Raymond was critically acclaimed for his writing, with the novel winning an award for “Best Book of 2004” by Publisher’s Weekly.

It is important to note that both Raymond and Reichardt have a fascination, or rather, an attachment to Oregon, a frequent backdrop in nearly all their collaborations. ‘The Half-Life’ then, seems to be an ode to the place, something Reichardt also captures in her adaptation. The natural world of Pacific Northwest plays an important role in the film, especially with the way the narrative ties it to the beginning of the American dream.

While ‘First Cow’ is indeed based on a work of fiction. The source material is rooted in the actual history of the Oregon territory. Apart from the Native Americans who lived in the area, everyone else was an immigrant. The 1820s were the time when European explorers had begun to settle in the territory. This is also around the time fur trade was active in the area. Interestingly, the fur trade was the earliest economic enterprise in the territory, and probably the entire of North America. This gains relevance in the premise as Cookie originally works as a cook for fur trappers.

Reichardt is known for the minimalist and realistic approach in her films, which has been described by film critic A.O. Scott as “Neo-Neo Realism“. Scott drew comparison between her work and the classic Italian neorealist films, both thematically and aesthetically. Reichardt primarily works on narratives surrounding working class individuals in the margins of society who’re looking for a better life. This theme is explored particularly well in ‘First Cow’. In an interview with The Guardian, she had admitted, “My films are just glimpses of people passing through”.

Each one of Reichardt’s films, with ‘First Cow’ as the latest addition, also serves as a poignant ode to something more in its minimalist efforts – be it nature, capitalism, or just a delicate friendship between two men. A line by William Blake quoted in the film really sums it up, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”.

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