‘Cow’—Andrea Arnold’s Unsavoury Glimpse At An Industry Gone Sour: Review

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This first documentary from Andrea Arnold follows the mundane existence of a dairy cow named Luma. 

★★★✰✰

Cow opens with the birth of a calf, viscerally captured up close by a handheld camera. It’s a crude opening, as a pair of hands forcefully yank the creature, covered in blood, into the world. The spectacle is short lived, and once the newborn has been cleaned, we witness them take their first wobbly steps before tenderly suckling from their mother. There’s a certain politics at play in how the two are captured; whilst the calf is primarily shot from the front (an angle which achieves maximum cuteness), the mother, Luma, is often captured turning around to reveal a placenta hanging from her backside. It’s the image of the latter which persists in this evocative glimpse into the world of dairy farming.

Director Andrea Arnold’s decision to shoot Cow from the perspective of dairy cow Luma, seems to stem from her social-realist roots. In her fiction films, Arnold’s protagonists are often found on the fringes of society, exploited and trapped. Whilst the same is true of Luma here, what’s striking about Arnold’s film is that what really captures our attention are the systems and tools used to keep her producing milk.

By far Cow’s most striking sequences take place whilst Luma is being milked. Pop stars such as Kali Uchis and Mabel echo throughout the barn during these scenes, rendering the milking process as a more human form of labour. Pop music often features in Arnold’s work, weaving an air of documentary-like realism into her portraits of the working classes. Cow, however, flips the script—using pop music to imbue this industrial documentary with an almost surreal depiction of these cows as working females.

What might appear on the surface as a matter-of-fact depiction of the dairy industry, comes to an unsavoury conclusion. There is a deep underlying sadness to Cow, which for all its mundaneness, manages to capture the quiet terror these animals experience on a daily basis. Farmers mostly feature as hands, wellington boots, and out-of-frame remarks, and whilst they seem to show affection to Luma and her herd, Arnold captures their relationship as it truly is— nothing personal, just business.


Like the farmers, the filmmakers are eerily absent from this documentary, taking care neither to appear in frame nor engage with those who do, and yet their presence can be felt in the very footage they capture. At one point as the camera pans through the barn, a spider’s web is picked up by the camera operator, quickly becoming the focus for the shot and drawing out allusions to Charlotte’s Web (and the sympathy towards farm animals that book houses). Elsewhere, Arnold’s preoccupation with nature at the periphery of modern architecture continues, with shots of rain dripping in puddles, and birds flying overhead, offering brief respites on the horizon of Luma’s pen.

(Cow, courtesy of MUBI) Luma the cow framed between a dark, metal corridor on a dairy farm.

When the herd is eventually let out to graze in the film’s latter half, we are reminded of their vibrant personalities. It’s a lovely sight to witness Luma and Co explore and play in the countryside as they run through the fields on a summer’s day. However, for all this section’s warmth and beauty, it merely drives home the chilling reality of their steely cage; regardless of your taste in music, the ambience of the field at dusk is a more fitting environment for these animals. Sadly, they must eventually return to the barn and such inevitability permeates every scene. We all know how Luma’s story will eventually come to an end, and even when it comes with a bang, it still feels like a whimper.

The Verdict 

Cow is a strikingly emotive look at dairy farming from a cow’s-eye-view. Capturing the drab reality of a dairy cow’s existence, Arnold’s film quietly interrogates the ethics behind the industry. 

Words by Jake Abatan

Cow is now showing in cinemas and will be available to stream on MUBI from February 11.


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