Cow is a film that has a purpose and a specific target audience. It exists to persuade vegetarians to become vegans. If you care enough about cows to go see a ninety-minute movie about them, you’re probably already at least a vegetarian. If you’re already a vegan, it’s because on some level you already know everything this movie has to show you, and you probably won’t get much more information out of it.
Dairy farming is horrible, you knew that, but probably not the details. Just like the fashion and textile industries, industrial fishing or sex work. Most people see it as a necessary evil that they prefer not to think too much about. It’s one thing to know something and another to face it. I didn’t know that all cows had horns. I assumed female dairy cows weren’t bred to raise them, but no, they all raise them, except they are cauterized while the calf is young.
The film’s main effort is to convince you that the separation of a mother and her calf is genuinely traumatic for both animals. That yes, it is possible to traumatize a cow and yes, we should care that it happens. Do animals, even deprived of any sort of socializing drive, feel intrinsically and emotionally attached to their own brood? To some extent, that’s certainly true. We know that, that’s why when a lamb is stillborn, you can skin that lamb and put its fleece on another lamb and the mother will take care of it as her own because she recognizes the smell of her own calf . But does this connection go deeper, to the point where if captivity is all a cow has ever known, it still feels bad when subjected to the rules of captivity?
When at first the mother and her calf are separated, the mother vocalizes persistently for many minutes after the separation, expressing something that we are contextually prompted to believe is the intense emotional distress of a mother whose offspring has been removed.
At the center of this film is the debate over whether or not it is a cinematic construction. We know how documentaries can use editing to project emotion on a subject with humans and it’s even easier with animals because their faces are virtually impossible to read for recognizable emotions. They are therefore soft clay for the filmmakers to convey the emotion of their choice, combining reaction shots with a particular stimulus. Arnold’s film largely circumvents this accusation by using long handheld shots and at other times the evidence it presents is quite damning. When we are shown a farmhand who accidentally draws blood while cutting the cow’s hooves, then later sees her limping out of the cage, we need not think too critically about why it could be.
There are pieces that leave you perplexed. There’s a moment where it kinda sounds like she’s trying to encourage a young calf to escape. I don’t think that’s what was actually going on there, although some might read there and the fact that it was included means that the filmmakers at least wanted us to consider it to be.
The farm workers mostly stay off-screen, we only hear a sentence or two or catch a glimpse of a human face every once in a while. Some might argue that because the cameras are there, the farmhands were “on” and that’s a definite possibility. I might think we see them on their best behavior here, some projecting a detached professionalism, others a certain degree of compassion and gentleness, but they still do their job and what that job is is cruel enough on its own. There’s no good way to tag a calf’s ears, separate it from its mother, burn its horns or, yes, kill it.
It’s not all dark, conceiving his next calf is a surprisingly tender affair, a moment of true intimacy snatched from a mercenary situation, absurdly set to fireworks and the sensitive strains of a duo Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith. The soundtrack is in fact a continuous respite from the undeniable boredom of mundane inhumanity, with pop tunes played over the barn speakers for the benefit of the workers and indirectly, the public, although one think maybe also soothe the cows.
There’s that well-worn quote from Roger Ebert that says cinema is an “empathy machine.” Cow is both a refined expression and a test of this assertion. It’s very factual and resists telling you what to think. It’s not sentimental about things, but often invites the viewer to look into its subject’s eyes. Whether we see sadness, pain, or longing in it depends on the individual viewer and their beliefs, but it does require you to watch.
The fact that it doesn’t tell the audience what to think might well be frustrating to many viewers, even those who consider such an unteaching style appropriate or admirable in the abstract. Ninety-seven minutes isn’t long for a movie, but it’s long enough for a movie about a cow. It doesn’t seem longer than it is, you’re probably always going to be further into the movie than you think and believe it or not it has something like a three act structure including a ending which is damn perfect.
Lamb it’s not about a lamb, it’s about parenthood and nature. Pork isn’t about a pig, it’s about spending your life doing what matters most to you. Dog isn’t about a dog, it’s about masculinity and trauma. Cow literally talks about a cow, and some people will inevitably roll their eyes at that. I could even say that most people will. Many others will listen sympathetically, nod and never look at it, and some will look at it, feel bad, then put cow’s milk on their breakfast the next morning and not think about it. I like to think I’m not one of those people. I am a vegetarian and I became one because I watched Okay, Lily animal lifeand befriended vegetarians within a season. Cow alone isn’t going to change anyone’s heart, but it contributes to a debate that might possibly do, and for that, it was worth it.