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Cow May Have You Crying Over Spilled Milk

Cow is a movie that has one purpose and one specific target audience. It exists to persuade vegetarians to go vegan. If you care enough about cows to go see a ninety-minute-long movie about them, you’re probably at least a vegetarian already. If you’re already a vegan, then it’s because on some level you already know everything this film has to show you and likely won’t gain much additional insight from 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 consider it a necessary evil that they prefer not to think too hard about. It’s one thing to know something and another to confront it. I didn’t know all cows had horns. I assumed female dairy cows were bred not to grow them, but no, they all grow them, except they’re cauterized off while the calf is young.

The primary effort of the film is to convince you that the separation of a mother and its calf is genuinely traumatizing to both animals. That yes, it is possible to traumatize a cow and that yes, we should care that it happens. Do animals, even when deprived of any kind of socializing impetus feel inherently and emotionally attached to their own brood? To a certain extent, that’s definitely true. We know that, it’s why when a lamb is stillborn you can skin that lamb and put its fleece on another lamb and the mother will care for it like her own because she recognizes the smell of her own calf. But does that bond go deeper, to where if captivity is all a cow has ever known, it still feels wrong to them when they are subjected to the rules of captivity?

When at the start, the mother and her calf are separated, the mother vocalizes persistently for many minutes after the separation, expressing something that we are contextually invited to believe is the intense emotional distress of a mother whose offspring has been taken away from her.

Central to this film is the debate whether or not this is a cinematic construction. We’re familiar with how documentaries can use editing to project an emotion onto a subject with humans and it’s even easier with animals because their faces are all but impossible to read for recognizable emotions. They’re therefore soft clay for filmmakers to impart any emotion they choose onto, via combining reaction shots with a particular stimulus. Arnold’s film largely skirts this accusation by using handheld long takes and at other times, the evidence it presents is pretty damning. When we’re shown a farm worker accidentally draw blood while trimming the cow’s hooves, and then later see her limping out of the holding cage, we don’t need to think too critically about why that might be.

There are bits that leave you wondering. There’s one point where it kind of looks a bit like she’s trying to encourage a young calf to escape. I don’t think that’s what was actually happening there, although some might read that into it and the fact it was included means the filmmakers at least wanted us to consider that she was.

The farm workers remain off-screen most of the time, we hear only a phrase or two or catch a glimpse of a human face now and then. Some might argue that because the cameras are there, the farm workers were “on” and that’s a definite possibility. I could believe we’re seeing them on their best behaviour here, some projecting detached professionalism, others some degree of compassion and gentleness, but they’re still doing their jobs and what those jobs consist of is pretty inherently cruel. There’s no nice way to tag a calf’s ears, separate it from its mother, burn off its horns or yes, kill it.

It’s not all doom and gloom, the conception of her next calf is a surprisingly tender affair, a moment of genuine intimacy snatched out of a mercenary situation, absurdly set to fireworks overhead and the sensitive strains of a Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith duet. The soundtrack is in fact a continual respite from the undeniable tedium of mundane inhumanity, with pop tunes playing over the barn’s speakers for the benefit of the workers and indirectly, the audience, although perhaps it’s thought to mollify the cows too.

There’s that well-worn Roger Ebert quote that asserts that cinema is an “empathy machine”. Cow is both a refined expression and test of that assertion. It’s very matter of fact and resists telling you what to think. It’s not sentimental about things, but often invites the viewer to look into the eyes of its subject. Whether we see sadness, pain or yearning there is up to the individual viewer and their beliefs, but it does ask that you look.

That it doesn’t tell the audience what to think may well be frustrating to many viewers, even those who consider such an unpedagogical style appropriate or admirable in the abstract. Ninety-seven minutes isn’t long for a film, but it’s pretty long for a film about a cow. It doesn’t feel longer than it is, you’re likely going to be consistently further into the movie than you think you are and believe it or not it does have something like a three act structure, including an ending that is pretty damn perfect.

Lamb isn’t about a lamb, it’s about parenthood and nature. Pig 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 is literally about a cow, and some people are inevitably gonna roll their eyes at that. I might even say, most people are going to. Many more are going to listen sympathetically, nod and then never watch it, and some are going to watch it, feel bad, and then put cow’s milk on their breakfast the next morning and not think about it. I’d like to think I’m not one of those people. I’m a vegetarian and I became so because I watched Okja, read The Lives of Animals, and befriended vegetarians all in the space of a season. Cow alone isn’t going to change anybody’s heart, but it does contribute to a debate that might eventually do so, and for that, it was worth it.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

One Comment

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  1. I was disappointed by Pig because there wasn’t enough of the pig in it. Then he was killed.

    I come from a family of farmers and vegetable farming also kills animals. So, damned if you do, famed if you don’t? Plus, what if you buy dairy from small time local farmers? Ones who are humane?

    This article can explain animal deaths in corn and other vegetable farming:
    https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97836&page=1

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