REVIEW: Cow [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 94 minutes
    Release Date: January 14th, 2022 (UK) / April 8th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: MUBI / IFC Films
    Director(s): Andrea Arnold

You’re free, babies.

There are some real rocket surgeons working on the cattle farm in Andrea Arnold‘s Cow. After we watch #29 give birth for the second time, a farmer feeds her calf with a bottle of milk while she starts getting aggressively protective. We hear another voice ask whether she’s always been “that bad.” The feeder replies, “She never used to be. Old age.” Is it, though? Is it truly that difficult to fathom how maybe she’s grown protective because you’ve already separated her from five calves? Why wouldn’t she instinctively know you’ll inevitably try to take this one too? I guess the amount of distance needed to separate your job from your humanity is so vast that you must ultimately lose your common sense in the process too.

That’s not to say Arnold is vilifying these people who come and go throughout the daily lives of two cows in captivity. She’s merely presenting an objective, fly-on-the-wall depiction that inherently positions the audience into vilifying themselves. Because this is the cost of red meat and milk. The torture—that’s the appropriate word to go along with exploitation—on-screen is part of what being a carnivore in the First World relies upon. We’re therefore complicit when that calf is taken from its mother. We are complicit when the farmers abuse these animals by way of treating them like objects rather than living creatures. You can either live with that fact or turn vegetarian. Will Arnold’s film move the needle either way? Only if you’re already on the fence.

This is both a positive and negative. While you must respect Arnold’s vision and ability to let the truth expose these atrocities (for those who believe they are since many, like these farmers, do not), her dedication and refusal to editorialize guarantees the journey will lack propulsion. It’s unavoidable and I won’t deny that my mind often wandered due to the repetitive nature of the whole and the reality that its central point will not change. As soon as #29’s first calf is taken, leaving her to moan and scream while searching the perimeter for her location before going on hunger strike, you will have made up your mind on where you stand. You either accept it or fight against it and nothing forthcoming will alter that choice.

As such, we must simply endure the rest of Cow‘s ninety-minute runtime. I say “endure” because it won’t get any easier. Even when that calf is loaded onto a truck with other calves and driven to more open farmland to grow bigger and stronger and ultimately replace their mothers and fathers as milk-givers and baby-makers, the room for hope and joy is proven non-existent. Because when the women opening the door tell those animals that they’re “free,” we understand the lie. Having larger areas with which to buck and run, while cute, is not freedom. It’s merely a mirage—much like what’s supplied by a bucket of food meant to give an aging cow one last instance of satisfaction before receiving a bullet to the head.

The music is a distraction. The chatter by farmers is evidence of how numb they are to their actions. And that’s fine since this world is a workplace to them. It’s not a petting farm. They are probably all very comfortable with the propagandized line that they’re doing things in ways that provide the animal a “good life.” Compared to some slaughterhouses, that’s probably true. But ignoring their cries and forcing them this way and that can never be labeled “good” regardless of comparison points. There aren’t levels of abuse. There’s only abuse. And the profuse dripping of mucous from the cows’ noses proves their pain is real. You either believe burning down a calf’s horns at the skull without anesthetic is fine or you don’t.

Arnold presents those moments, one after another, with an in-close and uncensored eye to let the evidence speak for itself. Sometimes the cows even knock into the camera with a big thud before continuing. None of the farmers interact with the operator or alter what they’re doing because of it (as far as we’re aware). They are even thanked at the end for their participation and the farm’s openness to let the crew in because they did so willingly and surely have no qualms with what was ultimately captured. It renders the film a litmus test more than anything else since its portrait of imprisoned souls is projected upon by its audience rather than projecting an agenda of its own onto them. Either eat your beef or don’t.

[1] Luma in Andrea Arnold’s COW. Courtesy of Kate Kirkwood. An IFC Films release.
[2] Luma in Andrea Arnold’s COW. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Luma in Andrea Arnold’s COW. Courtesy of Cow Films Ltd. An IFC Films release.

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