Animal documentaries are as common as the amount of fish in the Pacific Ocean. Yet nearly all of them find a way to put humanity at the forefront, either by directly interacting with these creatures (i.e. Steve Irwin) or by endlessly narrating over their actions and habits. In the case of the dairy cattle documentary Cow, director Andrea Arnold sidesteps these tropes entirely by crafting a film with almost no dialogue or human subjects. The result is a eye-opening portrait into the bovine species and the horrifying practices enacted by dairy farmers.
Even though Cow forgoes a traditional animal documentary structure, it still contains a narrative that universally connects with audiences. The film looks at a family in disarray: A mother, Luma, is separated from her new born calf as both struggle to persevere in the dairy farm environment they’ve been stuck in. While Cow‘s messages are universal, the film may not be for the faint of heart. A live calf birth is completely realized on screen, while the vile use of hot irons and trimming blades on the cows will make your stomach churn. Though it’s the attempt by Luma’s newborn to suckle on the teat of a plastic bucket that may be the most devastating moment of this horrifying feature.
Yet all of those elements are a part of the life of the average dairy cow. Cow is not a romanticization of the animal. It does not explain or push any agenda onto these creatures. Instead, the minimalistic nature of Arnold’s feature allows audiences to witness every facet of Luma’s existence. The intimacy of the camera connects audiences to Luma from the very first frame. Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk’s plethora of close up shots make you look into the eyes and soul of Luma, and see your own humanity reflecting back at you.
While Cow is obviously about the titular animal, the film calls into question our treatment of livestock who act as sacrificial offerings for the human race. Is the convenience of milk and meat worth the enslavement of animals who are supposed to run free? Cow, which is more impactful than every animal PSA combined, will make you at least contemplate these societal questions and consider becoming a vegan.
The Silver Lining
Given that Cow relies heavily on visually connecting audiences to bovines, it’s incredible how layered the sound design is. Even without much dialogue, the sound design captures the cold, clinical nature of the dairy farm, as well as the liveliness of the cows. The sounds of panicked moos and calves sucking on plastic teats is more emotionally impactful than the most commanding of film scores.
Cow releases in select theaters and on demand Friday, April 8th.