Documentary Review: Consider the Life of the Dairy “Cow”

The morning after watching Andrea Arnold’s wordless, moving and sometimes unsettling documentary “Cow,” I found myself crossing the vast Deseret Ranches, the Mormon church’s beef cattle country that dominates the flat plains between the coasts of south central Florida.

And as I saw the free-roaming herds of Brahman/”Cracker” hybrids, hunting for shade, caring for their calves and grazing on the wide open and buggy spaces, I couldn’t help but think “You lucky bastards.”

Arnold’s film, which follows a mother and one of her calves through their short, sheltered lives on a British dairy farm, paints the portrait of a much glummer and limited existence. Looking the mother and calf in the eyes and seeing their circumscribed world through those eyes, we get a glimpse of what could pass for a soul in animals that most of us merely consider unthinking beasts raised for our nourishment, aka “what’s for dinner.”

There is no abuse of these Holsteins, raised and milked on a modest but industrialized dairy farm in Kent, England. From the human assistance with the mother’s calving to the attention paid to diet, the calm vocalizations that move them to corrals, pens and milking stations and the care given to trimming their hooves and ensuring the calves are well-fed and their pens mucked out, Park Farm passes Humane Society muster.

There’s no coddling, no “naming” of the animals that we hear. We know, of course, that they aren’t pets but “livestock,” an investment to be protected, used and even harvested.

But the unmistakable message of Arnold’s film — she did the downbeat hustler’s romance “American Honey” — is that this is no life, that any living thing, no matter how we “use it,” deserves better than this.

We see the calf separated from its mother quite early. They need most of her milk for their own purposes. She complains, and in extreme closeup, you sense the heartbreak, how shattering this must be for the animal. That it happens repeatedly over the course of the years shortens their lives, and not just in a physical sense.

The calf is kept penned-up inside for some stretch of time before ever glimpsing daylight and green fields. And then it’s penned-up again, in a tiny hut with a fenced-in space that would have the neighbors calling the cops if it was all that a medium-sized dog experienced of the world.

She’s seen her mother for the last time.

The calves kick up and try out the idea of play and cavorting, but there’s no room. It’s months before they’re allowed in a pasture, gorging themselves on real grass, glimpsing seasonal fireworks over the confining roof of a barn.

Arnold keeps her camera tight — on the cows’ shoulders or following them, always giving us a dose of the world as they’re seeing it. It’s a butt’s-eye-view take on “Escape to the Country.”

You have to take the filmmaker at her word on a movie like this. The editing, which conveys the sense that the cattle spend little time out of doors and are warehoused in soulless, rusty sheet-metal prisons for too much of their lives, has got to be honest for this message to be trusted.

I do trust Arnold, and can only shudder at the thought of conditions she might have captured on a larger American industrial dairy farm.

As mother or calf glances up and gazes at a passing jet, or into the night sky seemingly pondering the stars that form Ursa Minor, we absorb a “Charlotte’s Web/Babe” epiphany. Maybe artificial meat and plant-based milk is the future, and we’ll look back on our age and values with a sort of cannibalistic horror. Think of our evolving view of what goes on at zoos or Sea World and “parks” of that ilk.

And if we don’t, we’ll half to admit it’s only because we just don’t want to think about it.

Rating: violence, graphic calving scenes

Credits: Directed by Andrea Arnold. A BBC Films/IFC release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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