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‘The Cow’ Review: Winona Ryder Is Full of Surprises in This Over-Cooked, Age-Obsessed Thriller

SXSW: Ryder has a great time with this tricky debut from "Homecoming" creator Eli Horowitz, but little else is up to snuff.

The Cow Winona Ryder

“The Cow”

SXSW

Age is never far from Kath’s mind. When her younger boyfriend steps away for a moment, Kath steals some time to check out the wrinkles on her forehead, frowning over what she sees, trying to smooth away the years with her fingertips. Kath (Winona Ryder) knows that she and Max (John Gallagher Jr.) aren’t exactly well-matched, but she’s been down the marriage path before and it didn’t work out so well, so why not see what happens with eager-puppy Max? When Eli Horowitz’s “The Cow” opens, Kath and Max have been dating for just over a year — he was a student in her continuing education class, only signing up for the plant lover’s course because he very much misinterpreted what “hydroponics” meant — and things have been going alright. As the pair set out on a weekend away in the country, it seems that perhaps they’ll get better. They might even take it to the next level.

There’s no way they — or the audience of the “Homecoming” creator’s feature directorial debut — could possibly see what’s coming, though that’s more the product of an over-cooked, under-baked, and needlessly tricky screenplay from Horowitz and Matthew Derby that seems to think it’s far more clever (and thrilling) than the final product. As Kath and Max alight on the cozy cabin in the woods they’ve booked for a weekend away, only to find it already occupied by a grim-faced duo (Owen Teague and Brianne Tju) inexplicably wearing matching rain slickers, the film’s tone surprises. Here’s a set-up that seems ripe for terror — again, matching rain slickers — and yet Horowitz manages to keep it light, almost fluffy, hinting at some freshness to come.

Soon, that sense of something new will dissipate, almost immediately after “The Cow” gallops into just one of many transparent misdirections. Al (Teague) might not be that much fun, but Greta (Tju) is a ball of energy, and when the pair invite Kath and Max to share the cabin for the night — clearly, a situation that’s unfolded due to a wonky AirBNB booking error, right? — Max takes to her right away. Kath, the eldest of the group and the only actual grown-up, tries to slip into the somewhat forced merriment, but she’s tired and bored and a little freaked out by the whole thing. She turns in early, the sounds of the younger members of the awkward party accompanying her to bed, where she suddenly wakes up hours later, with everyone gone and a pallor hanging over the once-cozy cabin.

Outside, she finds something surprising: a heartbroken Al, crying that Greta and Max have…run away together? Freaked out and pissed, Kath jumps in her car and drives home, never once looking back. All credit goes to Ryder for pulling this bizarre twist off, plus the immediate aftermath in which she attempts to pretend she’s OK, maybe even happy to be free of Max. Sure, the guy might be a little flaky and immature, but what sort of person runs off with someone they just met, leaving behind the person they’ve been with for over a year? For some reason, Kath seems to believe that Max would indeed do that, and despite the creepy trappings of the situation, never once considers that something else happened in the strange cabin in the woods with the people they don’t know. Suddenly, Horowitz’s light tone doesn’t seem compelling, but willfully misleading and really sort of silly to boot.

Not as silly: Kath’s eventual fixation on Greta, all young and fun and flighty and sexy. Why did she manage to snag Max? What has she got that Kath doesn’t? And how the hell can Kath track her down to get some answers? Enter some very bad Googling and one heck of a strange run-in with the owner of that misbegotten AirBNB (Dermot Mulroney, practically screaming, “I am Dermot Mulroney! You don’t just cast me in a nothingburger role!”). Soon, the pair are (sort of) tracking down Greta and (maybe) crafting their own bond along the way, though their patter seems to run more toward heavier topics than a little good-natured stalking.

And that’s not all. While Kath undergoes her own investigation, so too does the film, with Horowitz flipping back through time, pre-cabin disaster, to show us how things unfolded from Max’s perspective. A cooler color palette and a more disaffected attitude set the Max scenes apart from the Kath scenes, as Horowitz and Derby endeavor to show us what really happened before Max’s disappearance. There may be some surprises afoot — a Max-centric reconsideration of that first meeting at the cabin is particularly fun — but the supposed revelations aren’t that thrilling or smart, only reinforcing some of what we know about Max and further complicating who Al and Greta are, if only to keep the film chugging along.

As “The Cow” sinks deeper into increasingly limp twists, turns, and choices, Ryder keeps hold of Kath, offering the film’s most genuine surprise: a real, lived-in, fully fleshed out performance. No one else can match her, but who could even try? The actress has only gotten better with each decade she’s spent in the industry, a consummate performer no matter the material. “People are predictable, it’s the saddest thing about them,” one character muses late in the film. The same could be said for “The Cow,” but — fortunately for all involved — never its star.

Grade: C+

“The Cow” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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