A beguiling feature that uses structure and star-power to weave a compelling mystery
The Cow marks the feature writing/directorial debut of Eli Horowitz, co-creator of Homecoming (the podcast and Amazon series), alongside co-writer Matthew Derby. As you’d expect with such a pedigree, the film has an interesting, non-linear structure, weaving around a mystery that gets weirder as the film progresses.
Kath (Ryder) and her boyfriend of a year, Max (John Gallagher Jr.), setting off to the redwoods for the weekend. Arriving at the place Max booked, they find a chilly reception awaiting them in the form of Al (Owen Teague), a lanky 20-something who apparently also has a reservation. His girlfriend, Greta (Brianne Tju), is more amenable, inviting them to crash on the sofa and sort it out the next day. The following morning Kath wakes up to find that Max and Greta have absconded in the night. After driving home alone, she finds she cannot contact Max. Days go by, and bemusement at the situation turns to irritation and suspicion. She tries to track down Greta by reaching out to the cabin’s owner Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney). The pair hit it off, and soon immerse themselves in a little sleuthing to try and figure out what really happened to Max.
A genre-crossing affair, The Cow weaves together a detective story, psychological thriller, horror story, and drops a little mid-life crisis into the mix. The end result is surprisingly breezy, perhaps even too lightweight. The thrust of the film comes from the simple mystery. Why did Max disappear with a woman he only just met? While Kath’s efforts uncover more intrigue, the structure of The Cow shifts back and forth in time, flipping to Max’s perspective to unfurl more of the story. The structure further opens up (and adds to) the mystery, but also allows playful contrasts between Kath’s life with Max, and the burgeoning relationship with Nicholas, a refreshingly adult figure after the infantile Max. Their differences in age and the realization that a younger woman has seemingly snatched Max away from her feed into Kath’s contemplation of her fleeting youth, and sense that time is running out; themes that are nicely developed within her character’s arc, and a little more heavily stamped into other aspects of the film. The time hops make up for some of the shortfalls in a script that struggles to build a real feeling of suspense or danger. The aforementioned breezy quality keeps you primed for an escalation or ramping up of weirdness that never fully manifests. The Cow, quirky in humor and tonally playful, treads a line between dark and unnerving, and farcical B-movie, and you walk away feeling it should have leaned harder into one or the other to really make a mark.
Mulroney is as natural and smooth as you’d expect, while Teague and Tju are operating on the wavelength where the film perhaps should be. Winona Ryder is a joy to watch, bringing depth to the role of a woman grappling with being ghosted by a partner who, let’s be clear now, was a douche and clearly punching above his weight class in dating her. The transition from “I’m fine” to “wtf” to “maybe I’m better off”, and everything in between, is sublime, as are her subtle gestures and deliveries that touch on her insecurities about her age.
Overall, The Cow manages to take a low stakes mystery and build it into something compelling, but lacking a real edge. Structural time shifts and an unnerving score by David Baldwin compensate for some narrative failings, in a film that needs to lean a little harder into its genre trappings. But real substance comes from Winona Ryder, whose rich performance makes The Cow stand out from the herd.