Donkeys have taken over the film world this year, and I’m here for it. Look at them! They’re little guys with long, sad faces that make funny noises. Crucially, 2022’s donkeys are strong enough to carry a weight of tragedy on their backs, and that tragedy is evident in EO, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski‘s latest work.
EO’s plot is predictable enough, but it shines in its oddities and through its craft. Due to animal cruelty laws, circus donkey EO is taken away from his handler Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). After a short stint at a stable, EO eventually ends up on a donkey farm, where he prefers to stare at a wall and dream of Kasandra rather than congregate with the other donkeys. When Kasandra visits him for his birthday, EO escapes and tries to follow her as she leaves. Thus begins EO’s journey, which we follow through the barred windows of horse trailers and the sweeping shots of wide-open fields.
The film starts off somewhat grounded but deviates, featuring some odd characters that EO meets on the endeavor. From death to some wildly introduced stepmother-stepson attraction, the film changes tones abruptly in its second half. EO can’t even catch a break when he becomes the unintentional mascot of a town’s football team. In Skolimowski’s world, tragedy is lurking around every corner. The color red sometimes covers the screen, turning a peaceful stream into a river of blood and emphasizing the chaos of performing in the circus.
The sound truly makes – and sometimes breaks – this movie: some of my friends were projecting this film and were thus unable to hear the nuanced sound design and Paweł Mykietyn’s beautiful score. When the film focuses on EO’s perspective, every sound (but the score, to mixed results) is muted except for his breathing, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in EO’s experience fully. We even hear what it sounds like to have our fur pet, a muffled rustling akin to ASMR videos that adds sonic texture to the film.
While some of Mykietyn’s pieces can overwhelm, their classical sound provides an interesting gravitas to the story and makes the constant motion and changing landscapes come alive. When man-made technology enters the picture, from the bright green sight lasers of hunting rifles to wind turbines over a red-tinted landscape, the score adds electronic elements. Even in music, nature and man are duking it out.
I would be remiss if I did not shout out the fantastic acting done by Ettore, Hola, Marietta, Mela, Rocco, and Tako – yes, these are the donkeys that played the titular role with all the grace, innocence, and sadness it deserved. The mournful cries after Kasandra leaves EO after visiting him on a farm pull at the heartstrings of anyone so lucky to have an animal love them. Despite all the cruelty he faces, EO always hopes to reunite with the one human that might not be so bad after all. These donkeys can act, and their distinctive sad eyes carry the film.
EO is a feat of production, even if its story is not groundbreaking. You will fall in love with this donkey and want to protect him from all that the world throws at him, and you will fall in love with this audiovisual odyssey.