THE STORY – Chronicling the daily life of a dairy cow in an attempt to move humans closer to them. Hoping to see both their beauty and the challenge of their lives. Hoping to understand one dairy cow’s reality and acknowledging her great service.
THE CAST – Lin Gallagher
THE TEAM – Andrea Arnold (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
By Josh Parham
Peering into the animal kingdom has always been fertile ground for alluring stories to explore. It’s a world that can either exist outside of human civilization or firmly integrated within, often indulging in the baser instincts we as a species believed to have left behind but remains embedded in the DNA strands carried every day. Animals can possess the same social structures, political intrigue, and nail-biting drama that humans also experience. Seeing this reflected within a supposedly less evolved setting only underlines the strange life journey every living creature on the planet seems to go through. It’s why these tales are rich with metaphor and powerful allegory, and one can certainly see that in Andrea Arnold’s new film “Cow.” The film becomes a poignant examination of an eventful life that is easy to find an authentic connection.
The film is set on a mostly quiet and nondescript dairy farm in Kent, England. Luma, the titular subject of focus, is seen going through what daily life is like in such an environment. At the start, she is seen giving birth to another calf before it is quickly taken away, and Luma is forced into the unending milking process. While her offspring are separated and living their own life, Luma is seen going through her own motions, a repetitive process that also gives way to the emotional turmoil such a creature may find itself enduring. She encounters love and loss through the prism of this confined space and must learn to be as content as possible with such a meager living.
Obviously, the very nature of a film that documents real cows in a natural setting is one that leans very heavily into an audience’s ability to personify the emotions of animals. There’s potential for this method to come across as a storytelling crutch, a cheat that aims for facile affiliations without much effort from the filmmakers. However, one should not be surprised that Arnold utilizes her exceptional skills at crafting endearing character studies to create a compelling portrait. The tone feels akin to her previous small-scale dramas that look inward on the lives of complex individuals, and she fixates on an intimate perspective on this silent protagonist. The quiet moments amplify a cinematic gravity that’s aided by such inviting cinematography. It’s easy to relate to this entire lived experience, one that includes a celebration of birth, despair of unending trauma, and yes, even the tragic inevitability of death. Arnold captures all of this through her tender and soulful direction.
As captivating as this premise is and as accomplished as Arnold’s talents are as a storyteller, the engagement with this piece does struggle to maintain such a high level throughout its runtime. Eventually, the repetition becomes more grating, turning the meditative to monotonous. The pacing slows down considerably in the latter half of the film, burdened further by the unclear passage of time. While that latter point feels deliberate to mirror the viewpoint of farm life, it nevertheless contributes to the meandering narrative that loses some of its power. This is also when the personification feels more artificial and the thematic analysis blunter. There is still plenty to find engrossing, particularly as the weight of the final moments set a somber and haunting mood that is incredibly effective. The film, unfortunately, does not arrive at this occasion as successfully as possible.
Despite existing in another medium, “Cow” fits comfortably within the realm of Arnold’s sensibilities. Documentaries are still reliant on a field of interesting characters and stories to follow, and the plight of Luma is indeed a riveting exploration. Even though it may struggle to maintain an absorbing presence consistently, there is a persistent element that displays an enthralling observation. There is no real condemnation of any possible inhumane practices, nor is this any kind of celebration of idyllic living. The presentation is stark yet fascinating in its portrayal, texturing a rich landscape with a stirring inspection of an undervalued life. Perhaps this is the fate of all animals and why there is such a determination to see their pain and joy mirror the tribulations of humans as well. The correlation may not always be direct, but the results here can still be potently revealing.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Andrea Arnold creates a poignant character study that is centered around a silent animal, making the narrative carry an endearing cinematic weight. The nice photography helps to establish an intimacy that highlights an engrossing story through one’s own personification.
THE BAD – The film eventually starts to lose momentum, and the pacing becomes more tedious. This is also where the thematic explorations are more shallow and blunt.