Cows…one of the backbones of the supply food chain. But what are they like? How do they live? What do they put up with? In Kent, England, we are about to find out. We follow Luna, a farm cow from the birth of one of her own to the obvious conclusion.
In director Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow, two moments stand out. One happens fairly early on when the director captures Luna in what feels like a plea for help, her eyes conveying a sentiment of “Get me the f**k away from this place.” It is emotionally stirring. The other moment involves Luna again, this time showing a hint of agitation, hitting her head against the lens of Arnold’s camera, almost in a “Get out of here and let me be” way. An argument can certainly be made if this is the best way to showcase this important animal’s service to the world, I’ll let someone else make and dissect it.
Perhaps not quite as fly-on-the-wall as, say, Gunda, Cow, Arnold, and director of photography Magda Kowalczyk are most interested in “telling” this “story” from a singular character’s view. It also being shot at ground level, Arnold’s camerawork follows the stylistic flow of its titular farm animal. Sometimes, it is patient and placid, other times, the inertia will give way to choppy chaos. Humans here are rightfully out of the frame or when heard, are faintly audible. The “talking heads” here are the cow(s) Arnold chooses to focus on. Though it happens in a completely real setting, there is an underlying element of surrealism.
Filmed over the course of a few years, Cow displays the minutiae of the average life a sizable herbivore experiences—in this case, a female. Gender dynamics aren’t pushed to the forefront here, but they are certainly existing below the surface. In the 90-minute runtime, we see various painful contraptions that are designed to cultivate exactly what is necessary for human consumption and the general churn/burn approach these gentle creatures are forced into. In other words, it’s designed to evoke a thoughtfully affecting response from the viewing audience.
And it does! Even with the most messy details spared here, I can confidently say that I’ll never look at frozen beef or milk the same way again. However, if there’s one choice in Arnold’s documentary that comes off as unnecessary, it is her somewhat consistent usage of licensed music in specific points of Luna’s journey. When deployed, this choice feels out of place with the rest of the presentation; letting these scenes speak for themselves would have driven home the point cleaner without cringe.
Cow is a lot of things: Intimately intrusive and (mostly) mechanically meticulous. Hard to see multiple viewing returns, but the efforts—like its subjects—are worth acknowledging and appreciating.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, indiewire.com, and collider.com.
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