2022-08-18

“Cow,” the first documentary feature by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, captures the plight of industrial dairy cows by zeroing in on the life and times of one, Luma, up till her unceremonious demise.

Devoid of explanatory text and almost wordless, this feel-bad documentary takes a soberly immersive approach, with the cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk often using a hand-held camera to approximate a bovine point of view.

Shot over four years at a farm in Kent, England, it’s not terribly unlike a horror movie when the shaky camera, for instance, follows a group of panicked calves — Luma’s offspring among them — being forced onto a livestock trailer and taken on a violently bumpy journey into the terrifying unknown (i.e. another pen).

The sound design, for its part, is a formidable creator of dread and suspense; it emphasizes the cow’s breathing rate, which grows distressingly fast during stressful situations. In one scene, a cow getting her hooves trimmed is locked into what looks like a giant panini press; it’s practically a contraption from one of the “Saw” movies, complete with the victim’s darting, terror-stricken eyes.

Unlike “Gunda,” another observational documentary about livestock, but with romantic, expressive flair, “Cow” is more of a sensory experience, and it’s a little masochistic. Though its primary takeaway is pretty much the same: animals have feelings, too. It’s an evergreen — if not-so-remarkable — lesson.

Thankfully, Arnold — the director of “Fish Tank” and “American Honey,” both dramas with a social realist bent — seems to have a bigger picture in mind. We somehow feel connected to these animals — not by their precious, humanlike relatability — but by the cyclically banal and thorough means with which they are exploited, milked and bred on aggressive schedules that break their bodies down prematurely. Too brief periods of freedom and respite in the form of open grazing punctuate Luma’s life, but for perpetual “employees” like her, it’s all work and hardly any play.

Cow

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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