Andrea Arnold’s Cow throws audiences in at the deep end in her brutal rendering of a year in a dairy cow’s life, the opening scene the birth of our protagonist Luma’s fifth calf. Her motherly instincts are patently obvious from the outset as she tenderly licks her newborn clean before the farmers quickly separate them to a chorus of frenzied moos.
It is clear that the life of a dairy cow is a life of unending degradation and sadness, and Andrea Arnold, in her first foray into documentary-making, captures such deprived living in all its grimly mucky glory. Spending the majority of the film a few inches from our protagonist’s face, viewers are unrelentingly forced to stare directly into the eyes of this oppressed creature. We watch on impotently as Luma is milked in a claustrophobic steel brace, has her hooves sheared while strapped into an dastardly-looking contraption that suspends her in midair and is forced to breed – though this scene is almost played for laughs, its Kali Uchis-soundtracked camera pan to some distant fireworks contradicting the scene’s disturbing nature.
The cinematography is breathtaking throughout, Magda Kowalczyk disclosing in no uncertain terms the fervent soulfulness of her subject as well as the sublime beauty of the Kent countryside, revelling in the beast’s brief excursions into the green fields (one thought-provoking shot sees Luma look up to the sky longingly) before the the browns and greys of the cowshed are once again all-encompassing. The sound design is also fantastic, the dull thuds of clanking metal and monotonous whir of diesel-chugging machinery overwhelming.
Late on, Luma’s view across the rotolactor reveals the industrial scale of this normalised maltreatment, as 1129 (the number emblazoned onto her backside is a sadly ironic signifier of our hero) is just one of countless cows enduring such suffering. But it is the final scene, as traumatic and disquieting as it is wholly unsurprising, that will linger on in the minds of viewers, a lasting reminder of humanity’s unsentimental and undisputedly tyrannical treatment of non-humans. A harrowing experience, Cow is a stark and poignant peak into the dairy industry – a must-watch for anyone doubting the systemic cruelty of our food industries.
This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies student, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.