Review: Immersive and Observational, Cow Brings Us Up Close to Farm Life and Food Production

Not unlike the recent documentary Gunda (about the lives of a mother and baby pigs), Cow follows the thankless life (four years of it, actually) of a dairy cow and its offspring on an English farm. From feature director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road), the film brings us right next to a cow named Luma, who opens the film giving birth and then is almost immediately brought to the milking assembly line where her fully engorged utter is tapped and her true purpose (to humans, at least) is revealed.

With Arnold’s camera floating among the cows as they go through their daily routines, giving us almost uncomfortably tight closeups, the film is so effectively immersive that you can almost smell the barns and feel the muck under your feet. We see how attentive Luma is as a mother, and when her calf is taken away from her fairly soon after birth, her reaction is heartbreaking as she runs around her pen searching for a final glimpse of her offspring.

Keeping her pregnant and nursing seems to be the key to her being a solid milk producer, and in the nearly wordless documentary, we’re able to ascertain which cows are prized and which are nearing the end of their usefulness. There is nothing especially cruel about anything we see. In fact, Luma and the other cows are allowed to roam open fields of grass fairly regularly (the ASMR-worthy sound of cows ripping grass out of the ground is both a highlight of the film and slightly nauseating). Making this a blissfully sensory experience seems to be one of Arnold’s goals. But there is also something inevitable about Luma’s journey. We know it’s nothing extraordinary, so in the end, we are silently asked to contemplate the sources of certain food streams and the lives of the creatures that provide them.

Nothing in Cow is explained, but it’s not especially difficult to figure out, allowing us to concentrate on the details of Luma’s surroundings, the other cows, and her physical state over the course of the four years (as it turns out, the last four years of her life). The film is almost rhythmic in its pacing and honest in its depiction of modern farm life. There are small moments of humor (a cutaway to a nearby fireworks display just as Luma is, once again, being impregnating is especially funny). But mostly, this exceptional work is an exercise in artistic observation and careful consideration, bringing us as close as we can get to walking in this animal’s hooves. And it has a hell of an ending that reminds us the visceral truth of most humans’ relationship to non-humans. This one will linger in your mind for quite a while.

The film is now playing theatrically at he Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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