The appeal of a viewing experience which simply details the daily life of a dairy cow may not seem obvious but Andrea Arnold’s unflinching documentary is surprisingly absorbing and emotionally potent. The power here is in its objectivity. This isn’t a film wrought with activist intentions akin to something like Dominion or Earthlings, it doesn’t combine clips of the vilest aspects of dairy farming for maximum shock factor, it simply depicts an ordinary life of a dairy cow but it is in that very regularity which makes Cow such an unsettling and disturbing watch.
It opens with very graphic footage of the birth of a calf followed by a moment of intimacy between mother and baby before they are separated to ensure the mother’s milk is saved for the production line. We can sense the mother’s anger. She stares at the camera, bellowing at it repeatedly, blaming us. What stands out here is how quickly the sense of person comes through. The camera is so close up, intrusive even, and the sound so visceral that you get to feel their mood. The pain, the discomfort and despair.
Outside of the cow’s suffering, there are fleeting moments of beauty captured too. The freedom the cows express when able to gallop into fields and experience space and the lush, natural grass is genuinely moving, although tempered by the hesitation and wariness they show when being ushered back inside. It will be the images of the cow’s torment, however, that will linger longest and although inevitable, the ultimate fate of the cow being disposed of so ruthlessly makes for uncomfortable viewing.