“Cow” breaks that unconscious barrier, thanks to a filmmaker who has always proved she has a documentarian’s attentive eye through piercing coming-of-age dramas like “Fish Tank” and sprawling, free-spirited road epics like “American Honey,” attuned to both the minor thrills and major pains of the everyday. Alongside her observant cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk, Arnold applies that same alert and non-didactic spirit to “Cow” as she follows Luma, a dairy cow who provides a great service to humankind by selflessly giving her milk away. Of course, the choice is not up to her—while on the surface she is justly cared for, Luma in fact lives her days in a claustrophobic loop of miserable and invasive routines within a system designed to take all that it can from her, without giving anything back.
While she is put through the wringer day in and out, we are never able to make out what the humans mutter on about when they are around Luma. Instead, we gradually start hearing the nuances between all the different Moos that Luma lets out. Perhaps a part of that detection is human projection. But then again, there is little doubt about the animal’s distress when she gazes towards the camera in one of the most cutting moments of the film and registers her protest with a number of sparsely voiced moos that grow in their desperation and frustration.
That is not to say Arnold is on a mission here to humanize Luma or the other cows around her—thankfully, the filmmaker knows better than reaching for a Disney-esque depiction of these animals, even though she injects the film with doses of humor from time to time, mostly through some idiosyncratic musical choices. Overall, her style and ambitions are much closer to Viktor Kossakovsky’s “Gunda,” a haunting, black-and-white documentary that trails a mother pig’s challenging life, as well as “Leviathan,” Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s meditative plunge into the lives of commercial fishermen and the underwater they mine. But while these two titles remain more on the experimental side that keeps the audience (as well as some of the more reachable emotions) on the outside, “Cow,” in comparison, takes a more accessible route, despite feeling on the overlong side. By the end of Arnold’s lyrical passion project, one feels genuinely connected to Luma and her likes, deeply concerned about their wellbeing amid the grueling circumstances they are obligated to dwell in.