Portrait of a cow: Andrea Arnold’s new documentary highlights farming industry, violence 

photo from the movie Cow
BBC Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Content warning: Violence. 

Contains spoilers for Andrea Arnold’s film “Cow.”

In Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” a horse becomes the subject of a small but consequential side plot, putting Arnold’s humanitarian instinct on full display. In the documentary “Cow,” the animal takes center stage in what Arnold calls her “labor of love.” 

“Cow” is the kind of project that comes around once in a blue moon: mid-labor Luna, a cow, turns to the camera. Arnold, a maker of gasp-inducing films, quickly makes her way to Luna, where the newborn is being yanked out hooves first.

This is big business for the folks holding the rope looped around the calf’s ankles. The farmers who appear in the film aren’t the focus, but when a word of theirs slips in, “Cow” doesn’t turn to judgment. There’s little judgment altogether, only an up-close and personal portrait of a cow and her calf — some so close Luna bonks the camera.

That portrait ends in tragedy, which is not surprising but delivered without aplomb. That’s not because of the final act’s delivery (abrupt, searing), but rather because of a brash style of filmmaking insistent on walloping us with gut punch after gut punch. Arnold rescued a loose climax in “Fish Tank” by tossing a child into the ocean. That one lived, but this film’s bovine boy will die of unnatural causes at the end of a long, virtueless cycle. 

Her latest is about the horrors and inevitabilities of a dairy cow’s life, told in parallel stories of Luna and her calf. There’s a scene where Luna is called back from pasture, and as she approaches a gate to the farm, she stops. The camera pans to the gate and back to Luna, like a replication of her hesitancy. The film largely assumes her perspective, a cow’s life. The information given to viewers mirrors that given to the cow; the innards of the farm are labyrinthine and foreboding — a prison. 

The camera’s movements, however, are fast and handheld. They’re self-reflexive in and of themselves, calling attention to the fact that a human controls them. That suggests, in turn, what the rest of the world isn’t doing, why the people out there, off the farm, in the expanse off-screen — suggested by shots of airplanes flying high overhead, fireworks on the horizon, the simple fact that the titular cow lives only on the farm — keep demanding animal products. 

“Cow” is sharp and poignant, but despite its stellar execution, it’s hamstrung by overt manipulations. The touchstone for this phenomenon in “Cow” is the film “Gunda,” Victor Kossakovsky’s brilliant documentary from earlier this year, which came to a similar conclusion without the brutality for brutality’s sake in Arnold’s film. Kossakovsky’s movie is about the lasting effects of farming on animals, but Arnold’s film leaves only a sense of violence, one that overshadows the parts of her film that stand out for their humanity. 

There are, for example, the sumptuous shots of Luna’s face, captured by a camera that insists on staying close to the sow like a good friend, even when Luna pushes it away. There are also the times Luna returns over and over to an automated milking machine. The mother walks into a stall, gets hooked up and music, tone-deaf to the diegesis, seeps into the film. 

Arnold comes back to the machine throughout the film, using it as a centerpiece. Toward the end, the shots of an aged Luna shuffling into the stall and knocking over the wood planks she used to trot onto so easily are cratering. The last shots — a bullet to Luna’s head, while the film’s closing shot is of her calf — are a message of fatalism, not empathy.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].