SXSW Review – The Cow
The Cow (2022) is an intriguing title for a film that blatantly has nothing to do with livestock. Directed by Eli Horowitz (one of the writers and creators of the Homecoming series) and co-written by Matthew Derby, it is an impressive first feature from both men. My draw to the film was that it is labeled as a horror film and stars Winona Ryder (who happens to be sprayed with blood in its feature image). Just going off the brief synopsis, The Cow is an unexpected treat with twists in the story that I don’t think anyone in the SXSW audience saw coming.
The film’s beginning follows a couple who have rented a cabin in the woods. Kath (Winona Ryder) and her boyfriend Max (John Gallagher, Jr.) arrive and are startled to find the cabin already occupied by a much younger couple. Already tired from the drive and it’s pitch dark outside, the young couple offers the pair a place to stay for the night. Kath would prefer not to, but Max is insistent on being adventurous and making friends. Acquiescing to him, Kath ventures inside and spends an awkward night playing a lame board game. When Kath retires for the night, Max is still having fun with the other couple. Actually, he is having more fun with Greta (Brianne Tju), and there is something between them; even the boyfriend Al (Owen Teague) is picking up on it. When Kath wakes in the morning, no one is in the cabin. She ventures out into the woods to find the other boyfriend upset because Greta and Max hooked up and ran off. She is astounded by this sudden change in events; Kath leaves and returns to her life, assuming that her boyfriend has dumped her for someone much younger and more fun. When Kath decides to dig further into what happened, the story becomes more complicated and has less to do with her.
Kath is older than Max, by 10 to 15 years, although the ages are never stated. Kath is insecure about herself, and being in a relationship with a younger man has made her even more doubtful of her attractiveness and how outgoing she is. On the other hand, Max is a bit immature for his age (he doesn’t drive) and is not as settled as Kath. The trip to the woods was an attempt by Kath to keep Max, showing him that she can be adventurous. Later in the film, she meets the man who owns the cabin, Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney), after attempting to find who Greta is. Their ages are similar, and Nicholas is more settled in his life, although it is not without strife. Newly dumped, Kath strikes up a friendship with him that could lead to more.
The film addresses ageism and insecurities about our physical appearances as we grow older, women especially. Kath has become romantically involved with a man who she thought was nice, and I am sure also because he is younger, presented some challenges and was a huge compliment to Kath herself. This guy found her attractive and interesting enough to want to date her. When Max disappeared with Greta, Kath assumed he did because this cute young girl was interested in him. Of course, Max would choose Greta over her, and she doesn’t second-guess the apparent reason until later. Like most women, she checks her appearance before getting out of the car, smoothing those wrinkles on her forehead brightening her eyes. Throughout the film, I thought that Winona’s makeup looked great on her. Whether this was a deliberate attempt by the makeup artist for Kath always to look her best or that the makeup was expertly applied and complimented Winona’s features.
The men of the cast are not excluded from being doubtful of their appearances or how they come off to others. Max comes across as immature to Kath’s friends and lacks the composure and seriousness that her friends do. He is put off by their attitudes towards him, storming out when he has had enough, seeking refuge elsewhere. Nicholas is older and doesn’t care too much about what he looks like as he has a shaggy appearance and is reclusive. He is still processing his father’s death, and how much closer it brings him to his own end. Later in the film, his aloofness about aging come to a head when Kath visits him at the cabin.
While the film certainly has May-December romances and puts young and older in stark contrast with each other, there is more to this film than meets the eye. The turns and twists in the story as the film progresses are probably the most enjoyable ones I saw at the SXSW festival. The Cow sets itself up initially as a couple entering a cabin deep in the woods with another younger couple who are strangers to them. One would assume, like I did, that the bulk of the story would revolve around that fateful night. In a way, it does, but the twists from left-field keep the audience engaged in a mystery with Kath and keep you guessing, even questioning her ultimate intentions. The Cow is a clever thriller that makes some poignant statements about how we value looking and being young and living our best lives in today’s society.