The Cow has the makings of a good movie – a deeply interesting idea, a capable cast helmed by the great Winona Ryder, a stellar score, and a creepily sunny ambience that works toward building up the plot’s premise. But watching it, one feels as though something is not quite right. Not in a cool way, that complements the unnerving atmosphere the film is working to cultivate; rather, something seems integrally half-baked. It’s something that if one spends too long thinking about it, teasing out into the open, the film threatens to come apart, leaving its first act divorced irrevocably from the subsequent two acts, with the result being that the conclusion after which the film is named loses its ideological heft.
Directed by Eli Horowitz, the film begins with Ryder’s Kath driving herself and her boyfriend of a year Max (John Gallagher Jr.) to a rented cabin in the woods. When the couple arrive, they find a younger couple, Al (Owen Teague) and Greta (Brianne Tju), already occupying the space. The two couples come to an agreement that Kath and Max will spend the night as it’s too late for them to drive back to the city. The couples spend the night drinking and playing a board game, with Max and Greta getting a bit too flirtatious for Kath’s liking. Kath goes to bed early and when she wakes she learns from Al that Max and Greta have run off together. With not much else she can do, Kath heads home.
A week later and still without closure Kath, understandably, finds herself thinking about Max. She contacts the cabin’s owner Nicholas (Dermot Mulroney) to ask him for Greta’s contact information so she might get in touch. Kath and Nicholas develop a cute bond, Nicholas helps her locate Greta. When she confronts Greta, Kath doesn’t locate the closure she was seeking. The rest of the film’s second act and the beginning of the third act unfold like a romantic comedy, with Kath working off her feelings for Max and trying to develop a deeper romantic bond with Nicholas. Meanwhile, Nicholas shares with Kath that he has a genetic illness for which he’s developing a cure on his own. In the film’s third act, Kath decides to drive back up to Nicholas’s cabin to surprise him for an afternoon, which is when she discovers some deeply disturbing things about Nicholas.
The plot is certainly interesting, and narrative-wise Horowitz is able to tie up all the ends he leaves undone throughout the first two acts. Ryder and Mulroney are great in their respective roles, with Ryder pitch-perfect as the bewildered Kath, amazed that a person can just up and leave their girlfriend overnight. Her Kath is endearing as she works to move past Max and Greta’s behavior and find love in the modern world. Mulroney for his part is impressive in his simultaneous strength and frail emaciation as the sickly but hopeful Nicholas. The music (by David Baldwin), is another good accent to the film, along with the cinematography (by David Bolen), which paints the various settings in lively yellow tones and the wilderness in lush greens, so as to further cast Kath’s ailing heart and Nicholas’s ill health in stark relief.
But there is something off in the film’s opening scenes. Kath and Max, due in no part to Ryder and Gallagher Jr.’s respective performances, are stiff about each other. Kath seems hesitant around Max, holding more in than she is saying, even before the two meet Al and Greta. This witholdingness is further mirrored by Max, who seems too positive, as if on his best behavior, as one is when one is in the very early stages of a relationship. It is unbelievable that the couple that the film opens up on have been together for a year. Kath seems surprised by so many of Max’s behaviors at the cabin in front of Al and Greta, as if she’s only now learning about him. And Max seems impatient with Kath in a way that should have broken this couple apart earlier on in their relationship. At the most this is a couple of people who seem to have been seeing each other for only a few months, which makes it all the more strange that Kath is so hung up on and saddened by Max’s departure.
The fact is, the relationship on which the film’s action hinges seems underdeveloped to the point where it’s unignorable. A year into a relationship, people tend to become more relaxed, comfortable than they are depicted here. In The Cow, Kath seems exhausted by Max’s love of records, and Max hates Kath’s friends. Max loves spontaneity while Kath goes to bed at 10 p.m. This dynamic could be a case of “opposites attract,” but it doesn’t seem to be the case here. The two have lifestyles that are integrally, diametrically opposed and neither Kath nor Max seems willing to change. Moreover, there seems to be no love between the two yet, it’s as if the relationship has petrified at the state of “liking” two people feel for each other when they begin dating: the two seem to like each other, but there is no warmth here that would evidence love of any kind. Just appreciation.
This sterility between Kath and Max is noteworthy because the film wants us to believe that Kath loves Max so much that it is a shock to her system when he leaves her in the middle of the night, that it is enough of a shock that she spends the subsequent weeks thinking about Greta and calling up Nicholas so that she might stalk this other woman. In reality, however, in the image with which Horowitz opens The Cow, of the couple driving to Nicholas’s cabin, the relationship seems to be well on its way to an end – it reads as though Kath and Max have lapsed into the habitual decorum that is the death knell to any relationship, when one actively works to ignore the other’s annoyingness so as to survive a moment more, as if counting down the moments until they can finally break up. Ryder and Gallagher Jr. cannot seem to pull any kind of chemistry out of the story given them, and Kath and Max seem more like casual friends than any kind of meaningful couple.
The ultimate effect of Kath and Max’s unbelievable relationship is that the script does more heavy lifting than it ought to, it takes pains to tell us that Kath really likes Max, that that is why she stalks Greta. And the ultimate effect of this over-explaining is that the script, regardless of how interesting or unique the overarching story is, lacks subtlety. Horowitz’s script commits the first sin when it comes to writing, it tells more than it shows, and for this The Cow seems half baked, slap dash, as though perhaps a few more revisions could have made for a more compelling film.