Reporting from the Denver Film Festival.

Somewhere in England, a beautiful Holstein with a perfect cow face gives birth. There’s nothing unusual or complicated about the delivery—though we will learn later that the cow’s uterus became twisted in the process—it’s just another day on the farm. The calf is born, the mother cleans it and feeds it, and when it is old enough, the calf is separated from the mother. The mother calls after it in pain, but this is more supposition than fact. The mother may as well be bidding adieu and giving instructions for all I know.

Cow follows the mother as she lives on this farm, birthing at least one more calf, getting milked regularly, and then an end awaiting every animal in captivity. Cow is less a documentary about livestock as it is a nearly wordless look at life in captivity. 

The calf gets the rougher part of things: First separation, then tagging, antibiotics, horn burning—none of it looks pleasant. The calf struggles in pain, but the mother seems resigned. If she were a dinosaur from The Flintstones, she would look into the camera while an industrial suction siphons her milk off and say, “It’s a living.”

Director Andrea Arnold provides no commentary and no argument beyond simply watching these two cows—the press notes reveal the mother cow’s name to be Luma, but the movie never does. Compared to other ranches, these cows have it well, including sunshine, fresh air, and a trip out to the pasture where they munch on fresh green grass—it looks wonderful. The rest, not so much.

Cow doesn’t feel like Arnold is making an anti-animal-derived product documentary because Cow feels as much a documentary of life on the farm as anything else. But I could see both camps using it in favor of whatever argument they want. And that it can be seen both ways shows just how good Cow is.

Cow will play the Denver Film Festival on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7:15 p.m. and on Thursday, Nov. 11 at 5 p.m.