Andrea Arnold’s first film in six years is a distinct departure for the English filmmaker, the spare yet thoroughly unsettling Cow. Following her 2016 road trip movie American Honey, the director’s foray into documentary is steeped in a violent monotony that both disarms and disquiets. It is completely void of dialogue, capturing the daily routine of a dairy cow and her calf through devastating vérité. There is no text or voiceover narration to sway viewer sympathies, opting instead to convey the desolate reality of livestock’s existence through candid, impartial observation. Successfully communicating the tedious torture of having one’s body mined for its resources, the film is totally immersive—even if its “how the sausage gets made” approach isn’t necessarily revelatory. However, Arnold’s aesthetic eye (and ear) suffuses Cow with a clear message, condemning the exploitation of animals in order to satiate human cravings.
Cow might closely follow two specific bovines—a milking cow named Luma and the calf she births on-screen—but it is less so a portrait of these animals than it is a detailed account of the cyclical process of dairy farming. The two “ladies,” as they’re often called by peripheral farm hands, exemplify two poles of a dairy cow’s lifespan: The two-year period before a cow is able to breed, followed by a continual existence of pregnancy, birth and lactation until death. Though the film never highlights this fact, it’s vital to understand that a dairy cow’s life expectancy spans from two to six years within one of these operations, but they can healthily live up to 20 years if they’re not subjected to this constant milking process.
It’s profoundly clear why Arnold was drawn to the striking Luma above all other potential subjects, as she sports a lovely Rorschach-esque splotch on her broad nose that recalls the image of a butterfly. This symbol perfectly encapsulates both the brevity of a dairy cow’s life and the gradual (if painful) evolution it undergoes. Cow splits its time between observing Luma and following her calf as it grows—after spending the first night after birth together, Luma and her baby are permanently separated. The calf is tagged, debudded with a cauterizing iron, and fed milk from artificial teats. Luma is milked, bred and impregnated once again. Particularly with considering the repetitive drone of Luma’s existence, there are certain parallels to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, documenting the minute, compounding traumas of (albeit non-human) female existence.
While Cow doesn’t overtly platform the director’s personal stance through the film’s narrative, Arnold is able to make pointed statements through music cues. “Tyrant” by Kali Uchis cheekily plays as Luma is locked in a pen and mounted by a bull; Angel Olsen’s “Unfucktheworld” seeps from a dairy farmer’s personal speaker as the cattle are herded indoors for the night; Garbage’s broodily apt grunge tune “Milk” crescendos over the film’s final scene: Luma’s daughter sprinting through green pastures with her sisters-in-strife, the viewer sick with dread knowing full well her mother’s fate soon awaits her. Arnold is well-versed in the art of utilizing a needle drop to deliver a gut punch, a talent she puts on full display (and heavily relies on) with Cow. In a film without dialogue, elaborate shot set-ups or greater narrative context, these musical moments are often the only time we are given an inkling of insight into the director’s own sentiments regarding what’s being depicted on-screen. Largely only featuring women-identifying singers (with oft-melancholy lyrics), these songs lament a sadness and exploitation intrinsic to womanhood. The same vein of violation perpetuated against these animals, trapped in a brutal web of (re)production, literally milked dry and discarded when they no longer serve the needs of humans.
Yet aside from the music—whether diegetic or soundtrack—there appears to be absolutely no intervention from Arnold. She is such a fixed feature in the farm’s muddy, metal pens that Luma often bumps right into her camera (evidently a product of this particular cow’s clumsy curiosity rather than the director crowding her subject). These moments are often jarring, but effectively so—it allows Luma to directly interact with the filming process, nearly breaking through cinematic barriers and barreling through the screen. This is gorgeously contrasted by Arnold’s static handheld shots of Luma, often capturing her innocent, black-eyed stare head-on. Confronting the audience with her gaze, we project our bleakest human emotions onto her: Depression, rage, pain, heartache. Realistically, all Luma feels is animal instinct—yet this doesn’t make her suffering feel more noble. In connecting with Luma, we experience the callousness of an industry that mines bodily resources for our consumption, a reality that’s only nauseating when the public takes the time to engage with the labor that goes into providing their produce.
In this sense, Cow follows in the footsteps of recent films like Viktor Kossakovsky’s similar porcine study Gunda—however, Arnold is a bit more deliberate in her juxtaposition of the farmers and their livestock. Gunda reserves nearly all human interference for the film’s very end, emphasizing the utopian image of a pig and her offspring until humans rip the piglets from their mother’s teat. In Cow, human interaction is a constant. Farm hands are the first entities calves see when they emerge from the womb, humans use their own bodies to guide cattle to their milking stations and human instruments swiftly shuttle the livestock off of this mortal coil.
Successful in imparting its message, Cow would still benefit from a few crumbs of context if it wishes to underscore just how unsustainable cattle farming is in its many iterations. They emit dangerous levels of methane (a greenhouse gas that accelerates global warming), and it’s worth noting that reducing personal beef and milk consumption would indeed reduce global greenhouse emissions in turn. By the film’s climax, though, sensible persuasion is far from necessary. Cow teases a genuine interspecies attachment before coldly demonstrating our lethal control over these creatures. This isn’t to say the film is relentlessly distressing—though her life is short, Luma spends blissful summers grazing fresh grass and sleeping under purple-hued starlight, an enchanting vision of natural beauty that’s despondent in its slippery impermanence. Filmed over the course of several years, the director’s camera reaches a comforting familiarity with Luma and her calf—making their plight all the more uneasy to digest. A feat of passive yet passionate cinema, Arnold’s latest fits perfectly among her existing filmography, portraying the depraved livelihood of those exploited for the financial gain of others.
Director: Andrea Arnold
Release Date: April 8, 2022 (IFC Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan