The Cow, a suspenseful thriller directed by Eli Horowitz and written by Horowitz and Matthew Derby, premiered at SXSW 2022. Horowitz’s debut feature is a hybrid mystery with suspenseful, sci-fi elements. A fine cast headed up by veterans Winona Ryder and Dermot Mulroney save this film from falling into its own convoluted cleverness.
A Benign Premise at the Start
Initially, Horowitz begins with a benign premise. Kath (the always excellent Ryder) and boyfriend Max (John Gallagher Jr.) drive to the redwoods to stay in a rented cabin for a weekend getaway. The train starts to run off the tracks when they find the owner double-booked the cabin. The menacing Al (Owen Teague) urges them to leave. But in the first twist, Al’s girlfriend Greta (Brianne Tju) invites them to stay the night and share the cabin and some fun.
Becoming acquainted, the couples have drinks and play board games. Exhausted from driving, Kath goes to bed early. Max, Greta and Al continue the fun and storytelling far into the night.
In the next twist, Kath wakes up feeling rested amid the beautiful scenery and clean air. But the cabin is empty. Searching the woods for Max, she finds a distraught Al, weeping and despondent, crumpled over in the woods by a storage shed. Max and Greta left, he tells Kath, implying that they had formed a sexual attachment. Frightened and upset, Kath searches the area. Finally, she decides to go home and contact the owner of the cabin. Maybe she can find Greta’s address and find Max that way.
Apparently, Kath’s feelings for Max, who was a student in a class she taught, are greater than she had even imagined. Obsessed with discovering what happened, she successfully contacts cabin owner Barlow (Dermot Mulroney). They form an attachment beyond a brief phone call.
Meeting for coffee, they share personal information. The writers tease us with the stereotypical trope that Kath and Barlow align better in age than Kath did with her younger boyfriend Max. When they meet again, we discover intriguing details about Barlow. Eventually, he becomes involved in her search for Greta. Since Max doesn’t respond to Kath’s attempts to contact him, Greta remains the only answer to Max’s whereabouts.
Flashbacks Reveal Something Is Amiss
Meanwhile flashback threads unspool in bits and pieces, revealing eventually the how and why of Max’s disappearance. The film gives us enough clues to lead us to the frightening conclusion.
In other films that have used flashbacks and switching between developmental arcs, either black and white sequences or swift cuts sometimes seamlessly indicate the intersections of past and present. But in The Cow, aligning the reasons for Max’s disappearance becomes awkward, with the flashbacks continuing to layer over the beginning storyline too far into the film. In fact, the rationale for why the flashback threads occur when they do appears contrived. The writers supply the premise for Max’s disappearance apart from Kath’s viewpoint.
Another approach might have delivered the pieces of the puzzle more seamlessly. Perhaps the flashbacks might have appeared earlier, still leaving the mystery and suspense intact.
Additionally, unanswered gaps in critical information confuse. For example, a more convincing explanation of how Al and Greta draw Max in might have been offered.
Credit in achieving suspense goes to the actors’ exceptional and committed performances. Because of them, the tense buildup of Kath’s finding Greta and then returning to the cabin brings the payoff the director intends. It is shocking and horrific. Ryder delivers the goods coupled with Teague’s and Tju’s intensity, fear and desperation. And Mulroney plays brilliant, geeky matter-of-factness with on-point specificity. His performance is a chilling contrast to the emotionalism of the others.