The Cow Review: Winona Ryder Goes Through A Bad Breakup In This Unfocused Thriller [SXSW]

"The Cow" is one of those puzzling mystery movies that cheats at every turn, deliberately obfuscating pretty much every detail until the last possible second. It's not about keeping you guessing. It's about keeping you completely in the dark before flipping on the lights and yelling, "GOTCHA!" There are ways to make such an approach work, but "The Cow" hasn't found them. Instead, Eli Horowitz's mumblecore-ish thriller keeps jumping back and forth in time, cluing us in on what's happening via randomly placed flashbacks that seem to be from no one's perspective. 

Kath (Winona Ryder) is coming around to the fact that her youth is behind her. Gone are her wild, youthful nights, replaced by rather low-key dinner parties and quiet afternoons. However, she's not entirely ready to let her younger days go, and is dating Max (John Gallagher Jr.), who is younger than her, both literally and emotionally. In fact, Max acts even younger than he actually is; rocking out and partying seems to be the only thing on his mind at all times. Kath and Max have been together for about a year, and yet when we first meet them, they seem like they're on a first date. The pair are on a road trip to a weekend getaway at a remote cabin, and their conversation is stilted and awkward. The awkwardness only increases when the duo finally arrives at the cabin and finds it already occupied.

A younger couple, the hostile Al (Owen Teague) and the friendlier Greta (Brianne Tju), have already unpacked and claim they rented the cabin for the weekend. Al wants Kath and Max to get back in their car and turn right around, and Kath seems inclined to agree. Max, however, asks if they can at least stay for the night, and Greta is more than open to the idea. As the night wears on, the quartet plays a board game geared at couples — the type of fictional board game that seems to only exist to provide character development. As the game goes on it becomes clear that Max and Kath's relationship is, for lack of a better phrase, painfully boring. And then the night gives way to morning, and things start to get really weird. 

A murky slog

After this initial setup, I assumed "The Cow" was going to spend almost its entire runtime at the cabin. That we were in for a one-location film where four characters have to bounce off each other in a confined space. But to the film's credit, it surprised me. The cabin sequence is just a set-up for things to come. After that initial night, Kath wakes up to find Al distraught and Greta and Max gone. Al says that Max and Greta, who were mightily flirty during the playing of the board game, have run off together. While that's a plausible enough scenario, what follows is not. Kath seemingly immediately accepts this scenario even though she's known Max for a year and only known Al for about a few hours. With no proof to go on, and no word from Max himself, Kath simply believes that her boyfriend ran away without a word, and so she heads back home.

But it gnaws on her. It's not that she doesn't believe that Max ran off. In fact, a part of her knows that a breakup with Max is a good thing. But she's still bothered by the whole scenario and wants to figure out why Max chose now, of all times, to cut and run. Through a series of implausible events, Kath teams up with Barlow (Dermot Mulroney), the ruggedly handsome owner of the cabin, to try to get to the bottom of things. 

There are hints that all is not well from the get-go. On the ride up to the cabin, Kath asks Max where he heard about the place. "Some people were talking about it," Max vaguely replies. "What people?" asks Kath. "You know, people," Max says and changes the subject. Suspicious! Little by little, "The Cow" shows us bits and pieces of what's happening here and asks us to take some rather huge logic leaps along the way. If there's one thing anchoring all of this, it's Ryder, who brings the right amount of weariness and confusion to her role. She plays Kath as someone who seems very tired of it all; someone who just wants peace and quiet. And yet, she can't let this mystery involving Max go, although it certainly helps that her new pal Barlow, with his salt-and-pepper beard, is a fox. 

In fact, Ryder is honestly the only shining light here. Mulroney downplays his character to the extreme, while Teague and Tju, as the young couple, go for big, loud, almost cartoonish performances that begin to get real old, real quick. "The Cow" deserves points for eventually laying all its cards on the table without blinking, and there's a certain satisfaction to be had from how twisted things become. But getting there is a chore and a half, and "The Cow" lacks anything resembling momentum. The random flashbacks feel like they were added quickly in post, as if Horowitz and co-writer Matthew Derby realized at the last minute that nothing here was adding up. I'm always happy to see Ryder get work, and she always brings something fresh to her roles. But she deserves better than the murky slog that is "The Cow." 

/Film Review: 4 out of 10