In writer-director Eli Horowitz’s labyrinthine, mostly unpredictable thriller “The Cow,” becoming increasingly risk-adverse is one clear symptom of getting older.
Part unlikely friendship tale and part potpourri of genre tropes orchestrated as a parade of red herrings, this debut feature takes on modern culture’s blatant disdain of aging and veneration of youth.
It begins with a common sequence: two people driving on an empty tree-lined road. They are, of course, heading toward an isolated destination in the middle of nowhere. Middle-aged hydroponics expert Kath (Winona Ryder) and her younger, man-child boyfriend Max (an amusingly annoying John Gallagher Jr.) have decided on an impromptu getaway to a rented forest abode as part of an ongoing dynamic in which he constantly dares her to be more adventurous.
In “The Cow” (not to be confused with Andrea Arnold’s 2021 Cannes entry “Cow”), Horowitz lays down strong eeriness early: He harnesses the inherently unnerving atmosphere of a place amid nature and toys with the language of cabin-in-the-woods films that immediately raise flags in the viewer. For example, the camera makes us hyper-aware of a large storage container near the home — too bad, we won’t know its significance for a while.
Once at the location, Kath and Max discover the place was likely double-booked and is currently occupied by a couple of 20-somethings with an uneasy vibe, ghostly Al (Owen Teague, also at SXSW with “To Leslie”) and vivacious Greta (Brianne Tju, Amazon’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer”). They allow Kath and Max to stay the night. From these early exchanges, clues of the movie’s age-related themes emerge — Max comments about Kath’s deteriorating eyesight or a discussion about their less-than-exciting first date.
But the scary-movie setup doesn’t unfold as one might expect. Instead, what ensues is Kath’s search for answers about who the young people really are, after learning Max may have run away with Greta. With her confidence tarnished, given that her idiot partner potentially left her for a younger woman, Kath meets Barlow (Dermot Mulroney), the property’s owner, and sets out on a caper with him as her understanding sidekick.
At this point, the construction of the narrative turns intensely nonlinear, as if someone had opened a jigsaw puzzle and scattered all the pieces on a table. The story now comes at us in segments that go back and forth between the past and the present, revealing new information on what may have happened, but also directing us to new theories about the possibility of a cult, or perhaps even a supernatural entity, being involved in the ordeal.
Via this decidedly piecemeal approach, surely to conceal the twist for as long as possible, Horowitz begins making his points about mid-life crisis more overtly. The screenplay is at its most compelling when Kath speaks frankly about the reenergizing morale boost she gets from dating Max, despite or perhaps because of his juvenile antics. But this out-of-order display of revealing moments also provides Max’s reactions to assumptions about his age from those younger than him as well as the expectations from his chronological peers on how he should behave.
Although this approach of Arndt-Wulf Peemöller’s editing maintains intrigue and forces us to chase the truth as if in an escape-room setting, what’s most notable about Horowitz and co-writer Matthew Derby’s greatly entertaining work here is the utilization of genre as a moldable frame to distill real-world anxieties about the passage of time and who we become when the years and decades start piling on. Their aim regarding how to flesh out some of the plot traps they set is not always on target, but the philosophical foundation feels fresh.
There’s a familiarity to Ryder in this role since Horowitz leans on her natural, self-deprecating charisma that makes her quest relatable. One can easily comprehend why she feels so jilted by what she believes is an unfaithful boyfriend or why she ultimately chooses peace and silence over excitement. The lightness in her performance counteracts the darker tone that some of the occurrences around her evoke. That she grows plants — which inevitably wilt — for a living comes off as a curious nod back to the unpostponable march of time for all living things.
As Barlow comes into Kath’s life, the film hints at the possibility of a bond developing between them, with echoes of a romantic comedy. They share intimate details while sipping on sodas, and for an instant, it seems the director might flip the script on us once more. These segments should feel more out of place, but in Ryder and Mulroney’s comfortably friendly turns, they sort of make sense.
When he talks about a genetic illness that has afflicted his father, and which he fears will come for him, our attention is yet again redirected. But the closer we get to finding out how all these people and situations fit together, the shorter each chapter becomes, almost as if desperately trying to drag out the climax. The film’s final third — particularly, what transpires in a defining scene — takes the genre-defying attributes of the writing to their limits, which results in something awkward and almost ridiculously hilarious moments. Though not entirely jarring considering what came before, this in-your-face WTF confrontation goes against the slightly more subdued commentary interspersed throughout.
However, it’s also in this portion that Kath gives a speech, whether the character means it or not, that explicates the feeling of watching the clock of one’s life go by, unable to turn it back or to recapture the idealized version of ourselves in the past. (Don’t fret, the eponymous “cow” eventually makes its way to the screen.)
In this house of mirrors about chasing the fountain of youth that Horowitz has built, maybe the point is that losing one’s edge, as far as society is concerned, is only the beginning of something more liberating.
“The Cow” makes its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.