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SXSW Review The Cow- Winona Ryder Saves This Lazy Thriller

From Eli Horowitz, the mind behind Homecoming, both the Amazon series and the podcast, The Cow tries hard to satisfy you with Winona Ryder’s charisma and a third-act twist.

You might be tempted to think The Cow is an indy triumph like the Nic Cage vehicle Pig, which somehow didn’t garner him an Oscar nod. The name is weird enough that you might think it’s some existentially named mood piece on what it means to be a capitalist or a literal cash cow. Likely the cast list would also be a huge draw for viewers. Winona Ryder is a star. There is something undeniable about her charm. In fact, she has enough of that undefinable “it” that it makes this lazy thriller fun rather than annoyingly predictable and boring.

Try as I might, I couldn’t dislike this movie. Unlike Homecoming, I saw the twist coming. I always knew who was behind the mystery. Even with the lazy scripting and awkward dialogue that I can’t quite believe is always intentional there’s a comedic sensibility to The Cow that makes it fun in a Hulu recommends at two in the morning kind of way. I’m not judging; we have all been there. There’s a perverse enjoyment that comes with watching Ryder navigate the insanity, but it’s not enough to make this a can’t miss, more like, eh, it’s not so bad if you got a couple of hours to kill.

Kath, a wide-eyed Ryder, and her younger boyfriend Max, a placidly toxic John Gallagher Jr., have traveled to a cabin in the woods for a weekend to reunite and decompress. The drive there is thick with caustic negativity. She is insecure about her looks and age, and he only reinforces that feeling. In a rare moment of honesty in The Cow, Kath worries at her forehead and nearly imperceptible wrinkles. There is a nugget of something smart there that gets lost in the rest of the movie. The message about aging and respect for time served and lives lived turns into a trite and insultingly cloying version of Death Becomes Her without the humor or moral.

While Kath obsesses, Max delivers cliches designed to make you dislike him. You get the impression right from the beginning that Max is cheating, and she is right to question him. Unfortunately, instead of getting a psychological thriller, you get a bloated hamburger of a movie that shows its cards too early and is left to die on the buffet table.

Things are uncomfortable the moment Kath and Max show up and find another much younger couple Al a creepy Owen Teague, fresh off his stand-out performance in Paramount +’s The Stand, and uber obnoxious Greta(Brianne Tju)staying at their cabin. Greta is some sort of disdainful anarchist who spends more time telling others what she isn’t than what she is. She is an insufferable slacker without the intelligence or charm of Angelina Jolie’s Kate, aka Acid Burn in Hackers, but sporting the same haircut. It’s not clear whether Tju or the script guided the overcooked performance.

Very early on, tensions were high between Kath and the others despite Greta and Max’s insistence that they share the cabin. That only worsens when Max and the younger woman go missing the next morning. Al is heartbroken, but something is very wrong. He claims they left together romantically entwined and that seems plausible with Max’s casual dismissals and gaslighting, but something feels off. With no choice, Kath returns to the city.

Once back in the city, Nicolas Barlow, biotech genius and idealist Nicholas Barlow an always reliable Dermot Mulroney, joins Kath in an unbelievably contrived way. However, it is welcome because it gives Ryder someone else to bounce her energy off of. She is at her best playing to a crowd. With the unlikability of Max and the younger couple it’s hard to care about what happened. I spent a good portion of the middle third of the film wondering why we didn’t just walk away. Barlow, who turns out to be the cabin’s owner in a head smack moment of foreshadowing, manages to keep our focus only because he provides a good foil for Ryder.

Horowitz and his cowriter Matthew Derby are better than this, at least in a serialized story. The first season of Homecoming was near perfection. It was tightly paced, impeccably acted, intricately scripted, and dripping with dread. The Cow by contrast is clumsy, expected, and way too in love with its own plot. A strong premise only gets you so far. You also need great direction and mood. The Cow wants to be a Hitchcockian thriller but is instead a weird puzzle box that might still have worked if there was something besides Ryder’s electric magnetism.

In flashbacks and sidesteps, we are spoonfed what led to this event. Instead of stingily doling out information and letting anxiety build, we are spoonfed the “true” reason Max ran off with Greta. He had his delicate feelings hurt over comments Kath’s friends made at a dinner party. Even when that information is shown, The Cow continues with the same jerking scenes that don’t provide anything other than irritation. All of the scenes which should have been illuminating were just filler. They neither shown a light on anything nor provided any urgency to the story. Everything seems so similar and unnecessary it’s easy to nod off and still follow the storyline.

The biggest problem with The Cow is the script which seems overly obsessed with age from a superficial standpoint. It says nothing new or honest about the fear, benefit, or difficulty of aging in a youth-obsessed world. Midlife crises and fragile lady doubts get way too much airplay. Ryder can make even the daffiest lines ring true, but even her substantial talent has trouble shining. Instead of celebrating her vibrancy and wisdom, The Cow uses it as an excuse to underuse Ryder’s considerable magnetism.

I’m not sure if The Cow was ever going to be more than a amusing B movie time waster. It’s the kind of film that would do well streaming but isn’t worth going to the theater for. Horowitz doesn’t always seem to understand this, though, as he neither captures the creeping dread of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House nor the self-awareness of Netflix’s sudsy thriller Deadly Illusional which coincidentally also starred Mulroney. Nevertheless, it has its moments, and Ryder is a proven commodity. Although you will see the twist coming a mile away, it is still worth a casual watch. Find all our SXSW coverage here.