Andrea Arnold brings her strong eye and empathy skills to non-fiction with a raw but beautiful documentary about the life of a cow trapped in an industrialized dairy farm.
Andrea Arnold has always been a tactile filmmaker. Since her 2003 Oscar-winning short film, Wasp, Arnold can make us taste, smell and hear everything through her protagonists, typically women trapped in socio-economic situations they can’t escape.
After cashing those HBO checks from directing Big Little Lies Season 2, Arnold now brings her point-of-view superpowers to the documentary form. Cow, shot at an industrial dairy farm in southern England over four years, follows the day-to-day drudgery of a cow named Luma. There’s no narration to give us context or guidance, no music except for distant diegetic sound from a radio. Instead, it’s just a camera staring into the vacant eyes of a cow, and it’s all we need.
Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk shoots the film less like a nature documentary than an intense psychological thriller like Black Swan. The camera is never far from Luma. It’s either right behind her shoulders, following as she grazes through her monotonous existence, or tight in front as if the cow is staring into our souls. There are humans around, but they are mostly out of focus. Only their hands are in the frame as they grab the cows against their will.
In a remarkable early scene, we get an extreme close-up of Luma giving birth to a calf. Arnold doesn’t cut away as we watch fluids drip and hear humans grunt, dragging this calf out of its mother. It’s a graphic veterinary instruction video until we see life burst into the calf’s eyes. Afterward, when Luma delicately cleanses her child with her tongue, Arnold has us firmly in her empathy trap.
The rest of the film follows mostly Luma, but we also glimpse her calf’s early life. Arnold does such a good job with planting us in the animals’ POVs. In one scene, when the calf is led to the back of a trailer going to an unknown destination, we tense up. Neither we nor the calf know where we’re going, so it’s an immense relief when the destination is a playpen with other cows.
As it progresses, we get stuck in Luma’s repetitive day-to-day routine. She gets milked from terrifying metal rods, eats grass, and gets her hooves cleaned (honestly, very satisfying). Then it repeats it all the next day. This pace is effective because Arnold makes us feel trapped in this industrial hellscape along with Luma. Still, it can be a drag to watch a cow stare blankly into the distance for three minutes. Not even shooting it during Magic Hour changes that.
Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk shoots the film less like a nature documentary than an intense psychological thriller.
There’s also a weak attempt at visually telling the audience how stuck Luma is by cutting to planes flying overhead or trains zooming in the background as she grazes in a field. In other Arnold films, this could be a powerful reminder of her protagonists’ inability to escape their surroundings. Here though, it rings hollow when you realize the cow probably doesn’t get the power of symbolism.
Despite that, the film is still a powerful and profoundly unsettling look at modern, industrialized dairy farms. The employees of this particular farm seem to take care of the animals (except for a harrowing branding scene), but they’re nice only until the cows stop being useful for their enterprise. These cattle are only used for their bodies and for producing more cattle to continue the cycle. On a certain level, we all know how our milk is made. However, we don’t want to devote time to contemplate what actually happens. It’s Arnold’s gift as a filmmaker to make us care and rub our faces in the cow patties at the same time.
Cow grazes at theaters and on VOD starting April 8th.