Eli Horowitz’s feature directorial debut The Cow begins with a simple guarantee: This is going to be an eerie, foreboding thriller. Before we even meet the characters, we are served ominous images of a storage container, standing solo in the middle of the woods. We don’t yet know what lurks inside of that unit, but it’s safe to say that it’s nothing good.
Shortly after The Cow establishes itself as a psychological thriller, the action starts. When we first meet middle-aged Kath (Winona Ryder) and her younger boyfriend, Max (John Gallagher Jr.), they are deep in the Redwoods on their way to a weekend getaway at a secluded cabin. When they arrive, though, it turns out that the space has already been rented out to hooded creep Al (Owen Teague) and his free-spirited, pixie-cut-sporting girlfriend, Greta (Brianne Tju). Since the cabin is way the heck out there (and Max has a knack for adventure), the odd couple agrees to let Kath and Max stay for the night.
Things take a turn for the worse when Kath wakes up the next morning to find Max nowhere to be found. She goes outside to look for him, but instead discovers a despondent Al who informs her that Max and Greta ran off together. Back in Oakland and seeking closure, Kath decides to try to get ahold of Greta with the help of the owner of the cabin, mysterious recluse Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney). From there, the film fulfills its original promise to be a grim thriller replete with twists and turns.
At first, the film works as a seductive and captivating mystery. The inciting incident—Max’s disappearance—is shocking enough to persuade the viewer to stick around and figure out what really happened to him, and Ryder’s wide-eyed performance unsurprisingly does a lot of legwork to draw the audience in.
The Cow goes in a number of unexpected directions that, on paper, look like fodder for a perfect missing-persons mystery à la Gone Girl or Prisoners. The problem is, Horowitz doesn’t quite seem sure how to tell the story in a way that keeps the viewer engaged.
Not long after Max disappears, Horowitz more or less reveals what happened to him in a flashback. In a lot of ways, this choice deflates The Cow of the tension it had so masterfully constructed in its first act. For the remainder of the film, Horowitz continues to play with time by melding two storylines: one that follows Max in the days leading up to the getaway, and another that follows Kath on her quest to find Max. Unfortunately, the implementation of this time-bending device does nothing more than suggest Horowitz may be more concerned with form than he is with story.
Even as the gimmicky format muddles Horowitz and co-writer Matthew Derby’s promising conceit, it’s also undercut by Horowitz’s attempt to grapple with the theme of age without seeming to know exactly what he wants to say about it. Kath and Max have about a decade of an age difference between them, and neither Horowitz nor any of the characters dare let us forget about it. In the opening scene, we see Kath dejectedly smoothing out the wrinkles on her face in the mirror (even though she barely has any). To further call attention to her insecurities, both Greta and Max make their own unprompted cracks at her age on separate occasions.
Centering Kath and Max’s age gap feels slightly odd on its own, as Gallagher Jr. and Ryder could easily be of similar ages. But worse is that it’s never quite clear exactly what purpose it serves. Is its intention to emphasize the discomfort Kath initially feels at the cabin? To twist the knife in Kath’s inciting wound: that she not only is left, but is left for a younger woman? Or simply to justify some plot points that appear later in the film?
Present throughout the entirety of The Cow is a frustrating push-and-pull motion. Where the premise succeeds, the storytelling method fails. Where the creeping score and cool-paletted cinematography do wonders to instill dread and anxiety in the viewer, the rapid editing and awkward scene transitions quickly disperse those feelings. And where Ryder gives a masterfully restless performance and Gallagher Jr. brings effortless charisma and charm to his role, Teague and Tju are distractingly cloying and cartoonish to no apparent end. In psychological thrillers, it’s practically a prerequisite that, throughout the story, there should be the feeling that something just isn’t right. Indeed, this is the case with The Cow—just not in the way you’d hope.
Director: Eli Horowitz
Writers: Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby
Stars: Winona Ryder, John Gallagher Jr., Dermot Mulroney, Owen Teague, Brianna Tju
Release Date: March 13, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.