It is very likely true that a 90-minute documentary focused almost exclusively on the daily life of a cow isn't going to be your first choice for your moviegoing unless, perhaps, your name happens to be Joaquin Phoenix.
In fact, I thought about Phoenix often throughout the 93-minute Cow, though that's not because Phoenix is in or or even had anything to do with it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Andrea Arnold's Cow is devoid of anything resembling a celebrity cameo or special effects or cutesie Disneynature like storylines. I'd dare say there are times when it feels like we're not watching much of a film at all, though this is undeniably not true and Arnold's mastery of the craft is evident from beginning to end.
Cow presents the story of one particular dairy cow, Luma, as a representation of the beauty and challenges faced by cows. Cow is a mesmerizing film, nearly poetic in its presentation yet equally emotionally resonant and frequently quite heartbreaking. Regardless of one's views on the consuming of dairy, Cow is often a devastating film to watch despite the fact that as near as one can tell she's living on a farm where it would seem like on some level she's actually cared about and treated about as humanely as possible given her situation.
Yet, I can't deny that even I found myself often mumbling the words "This is humane?"
The humans in Cow are few and they rarely speak. Cow gives voice to the cow, in particular Luma, from birth and follows a life that is jarring in its mercilessness though I can't imagine I'd ever find a cow farmer who would describe it that way. Arnold, known to be a soulful lover of nature and animals, is clearly seeking to align the camera with the cow and doesn' flinch or shy away from the various fluids that are a part of everyday life from gooey udders to slimy tongues to various forms of waste that left me both awed and a little freaked out. Luma lives a rather ritualized existence, a life filled with nearly non-stop processes of milking, impregnation, various examinations, and processes I couldn't begin to explain. There's an aura of resignation that practically consumes the screen and communicates in a language that is impossible to not understand. I'm not sure I'd have believed it was possible to feel at one with a cow, but Andrea Arnold has most definitely proven me wrong. I felt at one with Luma, a part of her journey and increasingly uncomfortable with and traumatized by her relentless journey of institutionalized abuses.
That's the devastating part right there. For me. That thought entered my mind over and over and over again. These are the things that happen on a daily basis to another living being so that I can live the life that I live.
While Cow is told through the lens of Luma, Arnold wisely avoids politicizing the film or even putting forth an agenda. There are no narrative voices waxing eloquently and there's really nothing in the way of an argument.
There's simply a cow's life. Over and over again.
Beautifully photographed and emotionally resonant, Cow builds to unforgettable heights and even more impossible to forget depths. The film's final moments are so ordinary that they should have been predictable, yet they weren't. By this time, we've been given so much time with Luma and her existence that it's impossible to not ache even if we don't sit there thinking to ourselves "I have to change the way I eat and drink."
We may not necessarily change who we are, but we'll never likely forget the powerful impact of Luma and the realization that there are millions of other Lumas out there.
Picked up by indie distributor IFC Films, Cow opens in theaters and on demand on April 8th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic