Movie characters always seem to think that it’s a good idea to head into the middle of the woods late at night. No one expects that will lead to their eventual death at the hands of a deranged serial killer or their sacrifice to the devil, to name a few possibilities, but it still doesn’t seem like the smartest bet. Yet so many still do it, and the result is rarely good. In The Cow, a couple arrives at a supposedly idyllic rustic home they have rented only to find another couple is already there. What exactly is off isn’t entirely clear, but things definitely do go awry.
Kath (Winona Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher Jr.) are first introduced driving to their destination, unsure of its precise location. When the unfriendly Al (Owen Teague) emerges from the house and tells them the place is already taken, Kath wants to go, but Al’s girlfriend Greta (Brianne Tju) says they can stay. A revealing board game goes well into the night, and when Kath wakes up, she finds only Al, who says that Max and Greta have run off together. When she is disturbed by his sudden exit long after she leaves the house, Kath contacts its owner, Nick (Dermot Mulroney), to learn more about the woman who was able to enchant her boyfriend away from her in just one night.
It’s difficult to describe the tone of this film, whose title doesn’t help with that at all. The narrative is structured in a splintered way, one that provides context to earlier events at various points throughout it. Kath is the emotional center of the film, conveying her puzzled and sometimes frantic attitude which others around her do not seem to share. She and Max, who is considerably younger, are evidently not always on the same page, and she appears to connect on a number of levels with Nick shortly after they meet, though she knows precious little about him.
This marks director Eli Horowitz’s feature film debut. He previously co-created the Homecoming podcast and subsequent Prime Video TV series. The deep web of mystery present in those projects is indicative of an enthusiasm that Horowitz, who co-wrote the script with Matthew Derby, has for probing situations where something is amiss but the who, why, and how are out of reach. As any Homecoming listener or viewer knows, the path to answers can be long and winding, and considerably frustrating along the way.
Ryder is certainly familiar with suspenseful drama with eerie undertones after her starring role on Netflix’s very popular Stranger Things. While it doesn’t appear that what is happening here is due to supernatural elements, it still falls within a mystery genre where audiences will feel uneasy and tense as Kath investigates. Ryder has a particular knack for facial expressions that convey a sense of angry confusion, which demands a response even if one is not available.
The film’s ensemble does a decent job of keeping the film engaging even if its direction is ultimately puzzling. Mulroney and Gallagher are both equally charming and off-putting, with their characters able to relate to Kath on different levels and not meet her at all on others. It’s Tju and Teague who set the tone particularly well for this unsettling journey, one that feels like it could feature more supporting players and a more expansive universe. But that seems to be part of the approach, that Kath’s search is a relatively lonely one, which only makes it more unnerving, bringing viewers along for a ride that’s not ultimately very fulfilling.
The Cow makes its world premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section at the SXSW Film Festival.