There was a viral tweet going around a few days ago from E! News with some truly stunning pictures of Anne Hathaway and a caption that read “Did Anne Hathaway make a deal with the devil? She is literally aging backward” as if she were some haggard, Tilda Swinton as Helena Markos in Suspiria monster of grotesque aging, and not a 39-year-old beauty who has been famous since she was 18 years old. It illustrates the age-old (forgive the pun) tradition in both Hollywood and beyond of women’s worth being directly tied to their age, and whether or not they’re “aging well.” Even Meryl Streep admitted that once she turned 40, she received three offers to play haggard witch roles within one year. It’s an inescapable reality for women of a certain, and in this case, increasingly young, age to maintain a sense of beauty in a youth obsessed world. Eli Horowitz’s The Cow approaches this with the hopes of showing the intense effects it can have in the lives of women without glam teams and stylists.
Kath (Winona Ryder) is a woman in her early 40s, has a successful career as a botanist with a respectable plant shop, and is in a long-term relationship with her affable boyfriend, Max (John Gallagher Jr.). When they escape the city for a weekend at a remote cabin, they find their booked rental already occupied by the young alternative couple Al (Owen Teague) and Greta (Brianne Tju). Initially looking to leave, the couples agree to share the abode for a night as they figure out what went wrong. As the night progresses and more drinks are had, Kath goes to bed after feeling increasingly isolated from the younger three, including Max. When she awakes, she finds Max and Greta missing, with a distraught Al telling Kath they have run off together after a night of intense chemistry. Returning to the city with a broken heart, Kath takes it upon herself to find Greta and try to gain a sense of closure. With the help of the owner of the cabin, Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney), Kath soon discovers a much stranger, darker series of twists as the answers to her questions.
The Cow is an incredibly stylish film that oozes atmosphere with its sleek cinematography and the effective score underlying the film. It’s a poster child for the argument for digital filmmaking in that it is both incredibly attractive and has a real depth to the image that so many other larger-budget digitally shot films lose in a sense of flat lifelessness. There is a heavy atmosphere with the film that is felt in the dense woods, shady back rooms, and brightly lit, but incredibly liminal spaces of the city. It suits a film with such mystery well, and it’s a delight in line with the work of Alex Garland in its glossy, but luscious aesthetics.
Unfortunately, unlike the screenplays of Alex Garland, that’s where the impressive nature of The Cow stops for the most part. While Winona Ryder tries her best to keep the film afloat, she deserves better than a film that undersells her talent and gives her an empty character to fill without much room to really make it her own. The Cow, like mentioned above, makes grand strides in commenting on ageism for women, but the way it goes about illustrating that is by making Kath’s one obsession in her life those same concerns. The microaggressions against her age by those around her go noticed, but not because they’re smartly written, but because they’re obviously grandstanded around like a red flag being shoved down your throat. There is no subtlety to be found in the film, and as it drags on, the twists that seek to justify the film’s continuation become sillier and sillier until it just can’t sustain itself any further, leading to a very underwhelming finale.
Not helped by the whole ordeal is how the film, seemingly attempting to set itself up as a series of vignettes, is edited. Particularly as the film plows through to its last half, its reliance on twists and turns benefits the style of editing none. While in a much slower, quieter film this might be an effective stunt, The Cow ends up feeling incredibly choppy and inconsistent with how its story unfolds. Not only that, it narratively never makes any sense. These strange fades don’t come with new chapters that segment the story, but rather at random moments that never feel satisfactory as an ending point, nor a good place to pick up upon a starting point for the story. It leads to a muddling that dilutes an already struggling screenplay.
As Ryder makes a comeback into the mainstream after her breakout re-emergence in Stranger Things, I wish more filmmakers would approach her with material more suited to her obvious talents. The Cow could’ve worked had the film given any of the characters a chance to reveal themselves and their motives through subtlety, or conversely, had gone into the full blown camp territory as the film slowly devolves into madness. It’s not suited for the talents of the obviously gifted cast and creative team and simply falls in the weird gray area of a ridiculous film that takes itself far too seriously with no real payoff to the entire ordeal. It’s a check written with its concept that its actual screenplay absolutely cannot cash.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Sunday, March 13th, Screening @ 9:30p CT, ZACH Theatre
*Monday, March 14th, Online Screening @ 9a CT
*Tuesday, March 15th, Screening @ 6:30p CT, Rollins Theatre at The Long Center
*Wednesday, March 16th, Screening @ 8:30p CT, Stateside Theatre
For more information, head to the The Cow SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.