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SXSW 2022: The Cow should be put out to pasture

The Cow

Winona Ryder is the sole saving grace in The Cow, an unnecessarily convoluted mystery with a distastefully archaic view of women & aging

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 South by Southwest Festival)

The Cow, the feature directorial debut of Homecoming co-creator Eli Horowitz, is a film that starts off on a potentially intriguing note as it observes how a romantic assignation in the woods goes wildly off the rails. Alas, the film goes on to squander that initial burst of promise, not to mention the still-considerable star power of Winona Ryder, on an increasingly silly mystery that is further dragged down by a convoluted narrative structure and a retrograde attitude towards the age of the central female character that makes yearn for the comparatively progressive likes of The Leech Woman.

The aforementioned character is Kath (Ryder) and when we first see her, she is driving with Max (John Gallagher Jr.), her decade-younger boyfriend, from Oakland to the redwoods for a spontaneous weekend at a cabin they have rented. Things fall apart immediately upon arrival when they discover that another young couple—the sullen Al (Owen Teague) and the more outspoken Greta (Brianne Tju)—are already there in an evident case of double-booking. With nowhere else to go, Kath and Max decide to stay the night, and the four pass the time by playing a game of Pillow Talkers (where we learn, among other things, that Kath and Max first met when she was his teacher for a course on hydroponics). When Kath awakes the next morning, she learns from Al that Max and Greta have impulsively run off together.

A few days later, Kath, who is still reeling from a divorce years earlier and mildly obsessed with the notion that she is growing older, decides she needs to contact Greta in order to get some kind of closure on what has happened. This leads her to Barlow (Dermot Mulroney), the one-time tech genius who owns the cabin at the center of it all, and the two of them attempt to track her down and piece together what has happened, while a connection seems to develop between them. As their investigation unfolds, however, we are treated to a series of flashbacks that gradually reveals the startling truth behind what we’ve already seen and puts them in an entirely new light.

As it turns out, the revelations offered up in the screenplay by Horowitz and Matthew Derby are not particularly shocking at all. Perhaps realizing this, they have elected to impose the puzzle-like structure in an apparent attempt to keep viewers interested that doesn’t work for a number of reasons. For starters, most reasonably attentive viewers will have a good idea of where it’s all heading early on, and those hoping for a final major twist will be disappointed to discover that there isn’t one. In addition, the characters and their issues are sketched out in such a haphazard manner that it’s difficult to develop much interest in them as they attempt to figure things out for themselves.

Most reasonably attentive viewers will have a good idea of where it’s all heading early on, and those hoping for a final major twist will be disappointed to discover that there isn’t one.

The weirdest and most off-putting aspect of the film is its attitude towards age, especially in regards to Kath, whose obsession with it is her only defining character trait. While another screenplay might allow viewers to piece this attribute together for themselves based on her obviously mismatched relationship with Max, this one hammers the point home early and often, starting with the sight of her staring in her rearview mirror and looking worriedly for wrinkles. This plays oddly enough in theory, but is even weirder in practice here. In real life, Ryder may be 50 but looks at least a decade or two younger here, despite the insistence of her approaching decrepitude.

Meanwhile, Gallagher is 37 and looks like a way-past-his-prime frat boy rather than someone brimming with youth and vitality. If Horowitz and Derby were going to use this obvious schism as a way of making some kind of comment on how society looks at aging differently for men and women, it might have worked, but it just comes off as one more inexplicable element in The Cow, a film filled with them.

The closest thing that The Cow has to a saving grace is Ryder, whose screen charisma remains undimmed. Nevertheless, even she’s unable to do much with a screenplay that forces her theoretically intelligent character to make one dopey and ill-advised decision after another in her pursuit of the truth. Beyond her presence, the film is a droning bore that is presumably trying to develop a sense of low-key suspense but never manages to get out of first gear before arriving at its deeply silly conclusion. By this point, however, my guess is that the few viewers still hanging on are doing so out of a desire to figure out why this bovine-free narrative has been named The Cow in the first place. As it turns out, the title is explained right before the end and, like pretty much everything that has preceded it, it isn’t worth the time or effort it takes to get there.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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