About a third into his story, the hero of “EO” — a small gray donkey — trots into a forest. It’s foreign territory for this charming beast, who once performed in a circus and is accustomed to human companionship. It’s also an important destination for EO, who’s named for the braying sounds he sometimes makes and who is on an astonishing and revelatory odyssey, a voyage that says much about both this one plaintive animal and our deeply unkind world.
Directed by the Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, who wrote the movie with his wife, Ewa Piaskowska, “EO” follows its protagonist — played by six Sardinian donkey look-alikes — on a seemingly familiar and classic path. Stories about animals on journeys, whether far-flung or more metaphoric, have fueled works of fiction from “Black Beauty” to “Bambi” and “Lassie Come-Home.” However splashed in tears, such stories tend to skew upbeat when transposed to the screen (particularly in Hollywood), becoming incredible adventures of animals who brave assorted dangers and cruelties en route to their prescribed happy endings.
“EO” follows a different narrative route, starting with its abrupt opener, a disorienting flurry of deeply hued red images of EO and his handler, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), before an audience. It’s unclear what’s happening, but the saturated color, the blasts of ominous music and the alarming image of upturned hooves suggest the worst, a mishap perhaps or maybe just a showstopping trick. Whatever the truth, EO is soon upright and on the move, trotting toward his fate, crossing national borders, traveling in and out of danger and encountering a range of humanity as well as a miscellany of animals both wild and domesticated.
For the most part, many of the animals that EO encounters have been tamed, including a threatening junkyard dog (played by the filmmakers’ German shepherd, Bufon) and a camel that, like EO, is removed from the circus early on after protests from animal-rights activists. Afterward, EO is relocated to a farm, where he’s stabled alongside a white stallion whose privileged status doesn’t protect it from human desires and designs. The stallion is carefully, almost tenderly groomed; it’s also restrained and worked. All animals may be equal, to borrow from Orwell, but only because of their instrumental value to humans.
EO enters the forest one night after a visit from a drunkenly exuberant Kasandra, who has come to wish him a happy birthday at another farm where he now lives. “May all your dreams come true,” she tells EO, who’s alone in an outside paddock. She gives him a carrot muffin, (cruelly) exhorting him to “be happy,” but soon departs. As the camera holds on EO in medium close-up, he makes a snuffling sound and a deep blare of horns fills the soundtrack, as if heralding a shift in tone. Within seconds, he is running down a road and nearly into a car (it emits a different horn blast), only to veer into a phantasmagoric woodland interlude.
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This sprint from the farm to the road and the woods signals a critical passage for EO, a crossing over from culture to nature. Until this section, EO has always been in the company of people who have controlled every aspect of his existence. They feed and lead him, bridle and hitch him, caress him but also yank his reins and threaten him with a switch. His treatment is as varied as the people he encounters, but whether he is managed by gentle hands or rough, he is always controlled in some fashion. Now, though, as EO plunges unbridled into the world of wild animals, he is, for the first and only time in the movie, genuinely free.
With the camera moving in tandem with EO, the score’s tinkly staccato notes echoing his soft clopping, the donkey voyages into a new and alien realm. The dark forest is by turns beguiling and threatening, filled with eerie beauty and evocative of other tales that begin with once upon a time. Right after EO walks into the forest, there’s a cut to a close-up of a frog moving downstream in a shimmering river, which is followed by another shot of a fat spider scurrying up an invisible thread. (The digital cinematography reveals every crystalline detail.) In the next shot, the spider is now near a web, a modest yet critical index of animal sovereignty.
“EO” was inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 drama “Au Hasard Balthazar,” about the life and tribulations of a donkey and the only film that Skolimowski says has made him weep. The otherworldly, fairy-tale quality of EO’s forest sojourn, though, echoes a sequence in another masterpiece, “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), Charles Laughton’s darkly surreal drama about a murderous preacher hunting two small children. In a lengthy, crucial sequence in that film, the children escape the preacher by river on a rowboat that carries them across a dreamlike landscape populated by some of the very same species that EO encounters.
This allusion to “The Night of the Hunter” can be seen as a cineaste tribute, as one great filmmaker nodding at another. I think it also speaks to Skolimowski’s toughness in “EO,” his lack of sentimentality and to the fact that his donkey is finally very different from Balthazar, a creature who Bresson described as “completely holy, and happens to be a donkey.” There is no “and” with EO, who is only and always a donkey and very much in — and of — this world, a world that is filled with mystery, yes, but also of brute reality. It’s not for nothing that at one point in the forest EO passes some old gravestones inscribed in Hebrew, a vision that summons up all the Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust, including in forests like this.
As EO pauses next to one of these graves, there’s a cut to a wolf howling. It’s a beautiful, unthreatening creature because in this movie — as in “The Night of the Hunter,” which references “ravening wolves” in sheep’s clothing — the gravest menace is people. Some seconds after the wolf’s howl (a herald of another tonal and narrative shift), thin beams of green light begin crosshatching the image. A green laser dot skitters across EO’s back, but when gunfire rings out, it’s the wolf that falls. The movie cuts to EO in long shot and then moves in, the camera pausing on his eye before panning down to reveal a dying wolf.
Skolimowski often shows EO observing other animals with his huge, unreadable donkey eyes, which are often shown in close-up. In some instances, he and other animals exchange gazes, creating a complicated circuitry of looks that remain rightly enigmatic. Sometimes people and other beings hover around the edges of EO’s periphery as he watches, but in the most potent scenes he alone sees horses galloping, ants scurrying and, in one foreboding scene, pigs piteously squealing in a truck. Part of the movie’s power is that it doesn’t interpret what EO sees, but instead insists that he has a place in the world that’s beyond human understanding.
“EO” never indulges in the self-flattering idea that people can ever truly know animals. Instead, whether in the forest or on a farm, EO remains essentially and stubbornly mysterious. He nods his head, including at Kasandra, he quickens his pace, he scampers and grazes, responds and, of course, looks. He’s loved, abused and ignored. Throughout, his gaze betrays nothing, which shouldn’t be misconstrued as an absence. It is instead the unknowable that makes the animal an animal — the thing that makes EO a flesh-and-blood part of a natural order, the thing that humans have consistently tried to bring to heel only to destroy.