Some were surprised last year when Andrea Arnold’s latest feature ended up being a documentary that followed a cow around; it was certainly a departure from her bleak but visually poetic films that often-explored deep themes about impoverished lifestyles and class struggles with such impressive works as American Honey, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights, and Red Road. She also directed 7 episodes of HBO’s Big Little Eyes. In her latest work, she steps outside the narrative form realm in her first documentary, in which Arnold transports the viewer into the perspective of a dairy cow living on an organic dairy farm in Great Britain. Without any need for narration or human voiceover, it’s Arnold’s observational camera and poetic eye that make the film emotive and fascinating in the way it’s approached and presented.
A film that ended up generating legs with some critical acclaim, with Andrea Arnold’s reputation and talent, Cow was instantly picked up for distribution by Mubi, which played the film exclusively on their streaming channel in March, and now IFC Films has released the film theatrically and on streaming services in North America. Given the right amount of acclaim and push, this unique arthouse cinema verité documentary recalls other recent eco documentaries like Gunda and Honeyland, and could find itself reaching a wider audience in months and years to come depending on how word-of-mouth plays out.
Shot by Arnold and cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk in astonishing, Malickian landscapes with beautiful sunsets, sunrises, nature shots, and other ravishing shots on farms that give the film a hypnotic pull. What appears to be a Planet Earth-style documentary ends up being more unique on its own. Arnold should be given credit for building an emotionally moving documentary where the power of the camera truly brings empathy for the cow’s living conditions, and what a cow experiences just to give us their dairy milk and consume their meat. These are things humans often take for granted, as Arnold dives deeper into insights by allowing the camera to just observe Luna and her daily routines on the dairy farm. Arnold isn’t interested in lecturing audiences about the plight of vegetarianism; rather, she allows the audience to ponder the cow’s existence and to develop greater empathy for other life forms other than ourselves.
Though the film observes other actions on the farm with other cattle and some farm workers, Luna remains the focal point–a mother cow where Arnold stages in a very earthly and mystic way. Arnold explores how Luna is a resource that’s used for nourishment. The lack of narration and some use of music from Garbage, Billie Eilish, and The Pogues that are all utilized well in the background as other ethereal sounds give the film a very haunting, dronie feel that taps into Luna’s psychology.
Luna is truly confined, as she is coerced into being of great service to humanity by giving her milk away. While she is taken care of and not abused, Luna feels like she lives in a claustrophobic cycle of endless routines on the farm. Arnold also observes her giving birth in the opening, which starts off very grotesque, only for it to transition into a very sincere and inviting moment, as Luma begins to lick the slime off the baby, only to be separated and rushed off to produce more milk. Luna reconnects with her newborn after her duties, and Arnold invites the viewer to be not only participants, but also eavesdroppers into the life and day of a cow from the start.
Arnold observes how a dairy cow copes with an array of disruptions. Overworked, exploited, and given very little for all the milk she produces, Luna ends up becoming lucky if she gets treated to a wide field of grass with other cows, or if she is even given the opportunity to see her cows again, only to give birth to another, and it becomes one tedious cycle after the next.
Despite intrusions where mama cows yearn for their baby cow’s ounce they are separated, the farm on display is actually one of the more reputable ones where the cows aren’t abused. It’s actually a dairy farm where the animals are fed, not abandoned, and a place where the farmers are gentle with them. Arnold isn’t interested in making a PETA video or didactic lesson on the mistreatment of animals, and it’s not terrifying. Arnold feels compelled to transport the viewer to a greater understanding of what animals go through on a daily basis in order to provide us with the nourishment we require as humans. In our daily lives, we never think about these things. We rarely think about food production, so Arnold opens a window to a new form of empathy that shows the discomfort animals have, even when it’s a more organic or animal friendly farm. While challenging and at times heartbreaking to endure, Arnold’s vision, at its core, ends up becoming an earthly study on the cycles of life, and it becomes a work of great empathy and visual poetry.