SXSW Film Review: The Cow

Romance/thriller with Winona Ryder keeps you guessing ... & guessing

The Cow

What is The Cow? The absence of the titular farm animal is one in a stacking tower of mysteries within Eli Horowitz’s thriller (though improperly labeled as a horror movie), which had its world premiere at South by Southwest. Ascending the tower was a journey, one where I never knew what lay around the corner.

Mostly, The Cow is a film at odds with itself. In parts it’s a mumblecore rom-com following hydroponic plant store owner Kath (Winona Ryder) in the wake of her scruffy boyfriend Max (John Gallagher Jr.) deserting her for Greta (Brianne Tju), a fresh flighty twentysomething they meet when their cabin-in-the-woods rental turns out to be double-booked. Ryder is wide-eyed, delivering both the confusion and sharp, over-enunciated indifference of someone wounded deeper than they’d like to admit by a breakup.

In her fumblings to find an answer as to why Max ran off, she ends up contacting the cabin’s owner, the properly salt-and-peppered Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney) who shares his own struggles with Kath. See, he’s been suffering from a genetic nerve disease and only recently found a treatment by utilizing his bioengineering knowledge. She’s a little damaged from romantic woes, while he’s a little bruised from a health crisis and divorce: It’s the perfect match.

Yet slicing through the present tense are visions of the past – before the cabin, in the tumultuous throes of Kath and Max’s frayed edges – and in these the secondary identity of the film appears: an unraveling series of plot twists. Rather than clues sprinkled throughout, a sense of dread pervades everything, and works to throw the audience off balance. This is supported by the incredible cinematography by David Baldwin, whose lingering shots of beautiful, empty forest unsettle and captivate in equal measure. That the story rarely seems to match the visual language does a disservice to the dazzling anamorphic foliage spinning on-screen. But by the time you wonder whether the setting suits the scene, another twist spins you off-course and into a gossip-worthy mess of human tomfoolery.

By the end of The Cow, all is explained but there’s no satisfaction in getting answers. Like Kath driving away from the cabin, boyfriend gone and life upside down, I left the film wondering whether more lurked beneath the surface and if what lay beneath was worth finding.

The Cow

Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere
Tuesday, March 15, 6:30pm, Rollins
Wednesday, March 16, 8:30pm, Stateside
Online: March 14, 9am-March 16, 9am

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

South by Southwest Is Headed to London
South by Southwest Is Headed to London
Culture fest adds third venue as global expansion continues

Richard Whittaker, May 8, 2024

Court of Appeals Sides With SXSW in Insurance Lawsuit
Court of Appeals Sides With SXSW in Insurance Lawsuit
Reverses previous decision in insurance company's favor

Carys Anderson, March 26, 2024

More by James Scott
Qmmunity: Blasphemy Baby
Qmmunity: Blasphemy Baby
Asking my haters to please use their hateration to combat more pressing issues

June 14, 2024

Queens, Kings, and More Events to Help You Celebrate This Weekend
Queens, Kings, and More Events to Help You Celebrate This Weekend
Movies, theatre, classes, dancing, and more reasons to get out

June 14, 2024


SXSW, SXSW 2022, SXSW Film 2022, The Cow

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle