Winona Ryder in ‘The Cow’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

The actress stars alongside Dermot Mulroney in Eli Horowitz’s debut feature, a thriller about a woman whose boyfriend disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Hot on the heels of Pig, Lamb and Dog, and not to be confused with the more literally bovine-themed First Cow and Cow, The Cow casts Winona Ryder in a disposable thriller that coasts on the actress’ indefatigable charisma without doing anything to earn it.

The SXSW premiere boasts an intriguing pedigree as the feature writing-directing debut of Eli Horowitz, co-creator of Homecoming (both the podcast and Amazon series). And like the excellent first season of that show, it has an elliptical, puzzle-like narrative structure and an ostensible interest in secrets, science, conspiracies and cover-ups. Alas, the similarities stop there. Notably, The Cow doesn’t have Homecoming season one director Sam Esmail’s flair — his gift for creating an atmosphere of tingling paranoia and blending tones of dread and humor, chilliness and comfort.

The Cow

The Bottom Line

Free Winona.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Director: Eli Horowitz
Writers: Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby
Cast: Winona Ryder, Dermot Mulroney, John Gallagher Jr., Owen Teague, Brianne Tju

1 hour 30 minutes

I’d be lying if I said there’s zero fun to be had watching Ryder widen her eyes and furrow her brow as a botanist whose boyfriend disappears with a younger woman under strange circumstances. Add to that a handful of amusingly daft lines, a decent third-act jolt and one performance verging on so-bad-it’s-good, and you can almost see how The Cow might meet the most modest of expectations — the kind of thing you’d doze off to after a long week, skipping to the end when you wake up.

But it’s difficult to justify lowering the bar that much when there are so many compelling options for genre escapism these days, from Showtime’s addictive survival-saga/teen-drama mashup Yellowjackets to Steven Soderbergh’s taut techno-thriller Kimi. By comparison, The Cow is depressingly slack and indecisive, neither leaning hard enough into its B-movie preposterousness nor taking the time to build any real, sustained suspense.

That’s a shame, because the premise is provocative. The Cow indeed at first seems to be setting itself up as a kind of gender-flipped Gone Girl, a psychological horror film about the nightmare of being cheated on (and ghosted) — especially when both the cheater and the other woman are younger.

It soon becomes clear, though, that Horowitz and co-writer Matthew Derby are more concerned with plot than theme, implication or style, relying on a scrambled timeline to hold the viewer’s attention. The problem is that this is the only trick The Cow has up its sleeve, and the film fumbles it; the big reveal arrives too early to maintain our curiosity thereafter, and a pile-up of supposed surprises too late to matter. It’s a prime example of the nonchronological storytelling so beloved by screenwriters being deployed to negligible effect.

The film opens with Kath (Ryder) and her boyfriend of a year, Max (John Gallagher Jr.), driving from Oakland to a rental house in the redwoods for the weekend. (That starting point may call to mind Dave Franco’s The Rental or Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, films that much more deftly explored cracks in romantic coupledom within genre spaces — slasher horror in the former, Charlie Kaufman-esque sci-fi in the latter.) Kath comes off as tightly wound while Max is laid-back (and, employing an occasional blaccent as well as a strenuous array of millennial catchphrases, pretty insufferable), though it’s too soon to tell whether they are grievously mismatched or complement each other perfectly.

In either case, the age difference between them — and aging in general — seems to trigger Kath’s insecurities. In a wordless moment that conveys the screenplay’s driving notion with a subtlety quickly abandoned, Kath studies herself in the rearview mirror, tugging at her hairline to erase her barely perceptible forehead lines.

When the couple arrive at their destination, they’re startled to see another car in the driveway. Before anyone can say “double-booking,” a sinister-looking dude in a hooded rain jacket (Owen Teague) — named Al, we learn — steps out onto the porch. Glowering and sarcastic, Al doesn’t appear amenable to Max’s suggestion that they share the place. But his girlfriend, Greta (Brianne Tju), also emerges from the cabin, insisting Kath and Max stay.

With a pixie cut and an air of pure disdain, Greta proves even more obnoxious than Al, though it’s not clear — from either the screenplay or Tju’s over-the-top mugging and vamping — what the satirical intention behind the character is, if any. (She says things like “We’re not together — not in that capitalist, consumerist, cisnormative bullshit way.”) By the end of the evening, she’s French-kissing Max’s elbow (don’t ask).

When Kath wakes up the next morning, Max and Greta are gone. A distraught Al tells Kath that he caught the pair “hooking up” in the woods, and that they ran off as he confronted them. Uh-huh.

This early section of the film should vibrate with anxiety, but uninspired framing, cutting and writing sap it of energy. Any sense of danger or darkness is not so much teased out as presented in bold and all caps: Al and Greta are cartoonishly creepy; Max is only slightly less cartoonishly dopey; consequently, the stakes feel low all around. The onus is on Ryder’s ability to elicit the viewer’s protective instincts, as well as an eerie score by David Baldwin, to eke out the tiniest sliver of tension.

Things don’t get much more gripping when Kath, days later, teams up with the cabin’s owner, Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney), a biotech hotshot turned recluse, to track down Greta. Ryder completists will note that she appeared with Mulroney in 1995’s How to Make an American Quilt — a piece of trivia that makes their scenes together, including one in which they stake out a thrash metal show at a warehouse, only momentarily more engaging

The Cow flashes back and forth, showing us the same situation from different perspectives or the same timeframe from different locations. Rather than gradually reveal the troubled dynamic between Kath and Max, the movie — in segments separated by fades to black — spells it out all at once: Over-the-hill hipster wannabe Max feels belittled by comments Kath’s bougie friends make at a dinner party, and by Kath’s own teasing about his sartorial choices.

Once that’s established, The Cow continues jigsawing around in what increasingly feels like a futile bid to distract from the fact that there’s no there there. Scenes unfold with anesthetizing sameness and little discernible effort by the filmmakers to toy with our nerves or tinker with our expectations.

Ryder can make even the dumbest bit of dialogue sing, but her character, as written, is a bore. Though Kath, presumably, is intelligent, the movie doesn’t let her show it; she stumbles along, never seeming to think ahead or experience a spark of suspicion or realization. She’s a passive bystander in her story — a captive, really — not unlike the viewer.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: BoulderLight Pictures, SSS Entertainment, Post Film, mm2 Entertainment
Director: Eli Horowitz
Writers: Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby
Cast: Winona Ryder, Dermot Mulroney, John Gallagher Jr., Owen Teague, Brianne Tju
Producers: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz, Shaun Sanghani, Russ Posternak
Executive producers: Melvin Ang, Anthony Eu, Lee Gan Eu, Marc Iserlis, Kevin Debold, Stephen Morgenstern
Director of photography: David Bolen
Editor: Arndt-Wulf Peemöller
Production designer: Susannah Honey
Costume designer: Joanna David
Music: David Baldwin
Casting: Nancy Nayor
Sales: CAA

1 hour 30 minutes