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‘Cow’ Review: An unflinching, undeterred documentary from Andrea Arnold

The latest from the filmmaker behind "American Honey" and "Fish Tank" is an ecologically minded endeavor that finds comfort in the uncomfortable.
Credit: IFC Films

SAN ANTONIO — Cows’ tails are longer, their bodies bonier, their eyes blacker than I ever would’ve thought—these are the kinds of things you notice watching Andrea Arnold’s new documentary, “Cow.” 

Joining “Pig,” “Dog” and “Lamb” as the latest in a recent run of zoologically named movies, “Cow” is the first of those to earn the frankness of its title: If cow is what you want from “Cow,” cow is very much what you’ll get, from the visceral griminess of an infant’s birth to the slurp-slurp-slurping of milk from a trough and the uncomfortable relationship with commercial machinery these animals are forced to endure. 

Make that “animal.” While it’s easy to assert Arnold’s documentary is a work of plain-faced gimmickry, the argument loses weight as the “American Honey” and “Fish Tank” director establishes it's primarily one cow she's following, identifiable by the “29” branded on her behind (We’ll call her 29 from this point on, for simplicity's sake). Combined with the film’s staunch verite approach, sticking close to 29 makes for an intimate, almost uncanny viewing experience, as if our experience is slowly and tightly mirroring her own despite our ostensible advantage of thinking we know how these industries work. 

But perhaps we don’t; not entirely, at least. This is a movie that finds comfort in the uncomfortable. The lack of an original score gives the ambient music of the facility a haunting quality, while Magda Kowalczyk’s camera peers closely and intently when a younger cow’s ear is tagged. Elsewhere, it practically wallows around in 29’s muddy ground level, to the point that we hear the voices of human laborers far more often than we see their faces. 

Other context is equally absent. We don’t really know where we are, for instance, and we’re not quite sure how to measure the innocent-sounding beckonings of some humans against the casual cruelty of others (prepare to grimace more than once, and to sympathize when the unmistakeable look of confounded terror is glimpsed in a small cow’s eyes). The more relaxed the operations at this dairy farm, the more things feel like a trap. But the reality remains as ambiguous for us as it is for 29, even as it’s clear what she’s being maintained to do. In a sense, it’s that very idea of animals being maintained that Arnold is getting at. 

But that’s only the calf of it. If “Cow” has a subdued narrative trajectory, it’s traced by the changes in scenery from the prison of a muddy pen to literal greener pastures. If there’s conflict, it’s visible in the varying levels of freedom that we see afforded to these animals. Character development? It’s here, and steadily tightened as we watch 29 grow increasingly tolerable of having the camera around, always within a few meters and often much closer. She looks and brays at the camera early on, as if trying – really, actually trying – to establish a trust with it. We can imagine the questions forming in her head: “What do you make of this? Do you really want to see where things go from here?” Arnold likely doesn’t, but knows she must. She, and we, are with 29 all the way, through moments gruesome and glorious and pensive. 

It isn’t until the film’s final moments, a literal blast of gut-wrenching reality wiping away any ambiguous feelings we may have had in the preceding 90 minutes, that one fully realizes how sly Arnold has been with her filmmaking – and how sensitive – easing us into a mode of existence without forcibly showing her hand. Make no mistake, there is a story being told in “Cow’s” images. And it’s an incredibly sad one. 

"Cow" is available to rent now on VOD platforms. It's not rated. Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes. 

Directed by Andrea Arnold

2022

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