‘Cow’, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s first documentary, captures the plight of industrial dairy cows by zooming in on the life and time of one, Luma, until her unobtrusive demise.
Devoid of explanatory text and almost wordless, this feel-bad documentary has a soberly immersive approach, with cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk often using a handheld camera to approximate a bovine point of view.
Shot on a farm in Kent, England, for over four years, it doesn’t look much like a horror film when, for example, the shaky camera follows a group of panicked calves — including Luma’s offspring — who are forced onto a cattle truck and violently rounded up. bumpy journey into the terrifying unknown (ie another pen).
The sound design for its part is a formidable maker of fear and suspense; it emphasizes the cow’s respiratory rate, which grows alarmingly fast in stressful situations. In one scene, a cow getting her hooves trimmed is locked in what looks like a giant panini press; it’s practically a device from one of the “Saw” movies, complete with the victim’s shooting, terror-stricken eyes.
Unlike “Gunda,” another observational documentary about livestock, but with a romantic, expressive flair, “Cow” is more of a sensory experience, and it’s a bit masochistic. While the main takeaway is pretty much the same: Animals have feelings, too. It’s an evergreen—if not so remarkable—lesson.
Fortunately, Arnold – the director of ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘American Honey’, both dramas with a social-realistic bent – seems to have a bigger picture in mind. We feel somehow connected to these animals—not through their precious, human relatability—but through the cyclically banal and profound means by which they are exploited, milked, and bred in aggressive schemes that break down their bodies prematurely. Too short periods of freedom and tranquility in the form of open grazing accentuate Luma’s life, but for perpetual ‘collaborators’ like her, it is all work and hardly any play.
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters and for rent or sale on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV providers.