Frederick Wiseman, Meat, 1976, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 112 minutes.

IT’S ACTUALLY A FULL HALF HOUR into Meat (1976) before the camera even reaches the hacking-and-packing floor of the Monfort meatpacking plant in Colorado. But that’s only one surprise in what is sometimes mistaken for the most brutally simple of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional documentaries. In fact, the run-up to the assembly-line centerpieces demonstrates the filmmaker’s overlooked creativity and versatility with his material. Just witness the western-echoing shots of ranchers silhouetted against the flaring sun, the almost pointillist extreme long shot of cattle heads in a sprawling pen, or the bizarre, estranging interlude of a Japanese tour group questioning a company guide. And before any aproned butchers, we see the plant’s salesroom, full of guys on telephones cajoling and mollifying clients. (“Maybe you got a cold,” one deadpans to a complaint about flavor.)

Part of MoMA’s yearlong Wiseman retrospective, Meat is programmed alongside his heartrending look at a battered-women’s shelter, Domestic Violence (2001), giving an astonishing summary of the director’s range. But when the cutting starts, Meat becomes the most linear of treatments—though it is no less rich for it. Once cows are bolt-gunned and hung on hooks, the process of flaying, slicing, and butchering unfolds in long, mesmerizing stretches. Thanks to the distanced stance, the transformation from cow to meat turns quickly from disturbing demo into a pure play of forms. The screen is populated with and emptied of bovine bodies; electric knives and clippers subtract skin, hooves, innards. The torsos, so uniform in black and white, glide by looking oddly like Venus de Milos, at one point even getting draped with classically contour-hugging coverings. In the flattening wash of the ambient industrial noise, it’s like some hybrid vision of the afterlife: heavenly floating bodies, hellishly disassembled, moving inexorably forward.

Though this all might suggest Nikolaus Geyrhalter (or Damien Hirst), Wiseman doesn’t press for an aesthetic; as for artistic dialogue, he’s very often his own interlocutor. Meat rhymes with his other animal films (Primate [1974], Racetrack [1985], Zoo [1993]), his assembly-line narratives (Basic Training [1971], Welfare [1975]) and scenes (the fish factory of Belfast, Maine [1999]), and even the desert long-shot photography in Sinai Field Mission (1978) and corporate-meeting eavesdropping in The Store (1983). And in perhaps the film’s greatest formal coup, Meat talks to Meat: After beef, the entire process is replayed—with sheep. Are we to be horrified, numbed, curiously comparative? For one thing, we meet one of Wiseman’s most notorious “characters”: the Judas goat, which leads sheep in orderly fashion into the plant (and which the filmmaker has described in interviews as looking rather pleased with himself . . .).

Wiseman allows for the expected dehumanization critique of factory labor, through iterative compositions of workers, the relentless movement of the line, and other echoes. But a union negotiation in a manager’s office is characteristically complex in its back and forth between craft and capital, and lecturing is banished by reserve and humor, as with a pitch meeting for a ludicrous “egg tube” reconstituted from at least a dozen yolks. For the final shot, one more western riff—instead of a rancher riding off into the final shot’s morning sun, it’s a big rig full of prime cuts.

Nicolas Rapold

Meat screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Wednesday, February 17, and Sunday, February 21, as part of a complete Frederick Wiseman retrospective running through December 31. For more details, click here.