One of the most remarkable things about EO is how such a passive main character can swell our hearts with empathy. Take the scene where EO the donkey stares out from an opening in a semi’s livestock trailer. At highway speed, he spots a herd of wild horses running wild in a field. That moment hits a powerful point: In his short existence, EO has known both love and cruelty, but he has never known freedom. Or joy. It must be bewildering for him to see animals living in a world without barbed fences or whips. EO can’t grasp the scope of his torture, but as an audience, we grasp it for him.
Co-writer and director Jerry Skolimowski draws heavy inspiration from Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s avant-garde classic. Like that film, EO follows a solitary, sad-eyed donkey as he wanders from one adventure to the next. As the story begins, EO—named for the braying sound he makes—serves as a circus attraction. This isn’t a pleasant life, but it does expose EO to the genuine kindness of Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), his co-star and handler. She loves him, and he loves her right back.
Of course, it’s not meant to last. EO gets pulled from the circus and sent to a farm, where he can go to pasture with other donkeys. This would seem to be a perfect, gentle conclusion to EO’s story: There are fields, laughing children, and lots of carrots to munch. Unfortunately, this too shall not last.
EO wanders out of an open gate and leaves the farm behind. As with all of EO’s actions, the film never offers a firm explanation. Perhaps he misses Sandra, and suspects she could be over the next hill. Maybe those wild ponies gave him a tantalizing glimpse of untethered life. Or, most likely, there’s a simpler explanation: I grew up on a ranch, and we raised all manner of livestock. Sometimes, they just wander.
The remainder of the story is a surprisingly gripping experience, with equal parts harrow and heartbreak. As with Balthazar, or even Spielberg’s War Horse, EO travels from one vignette to the next. He’s often a quiet participant in the events around him. Usually, he just stares with the same hollow melancholia, only pausing to nibble on some grass.
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Along this journey, humans regard EO with a smorgasbord of emotions. Most look on him with casual pity—a homeless, brainless creature who should be somebody else’s problem. Still others act with barbarous cruelty, as if this gentle, sweet-natured donkey was a living piñata. Nobody loves him like Sandra, but such bonds are rare.
EO is a film with little dialogue, and most of that occurs in short bursts. This is EO’s world, and all the humans are just supporting players within it. Drzymalska makes a strong impression as his one human love. Isabelle Huppert has a small, potent cameo as a petulant aristocrat, while Lorenzo Zurzolo plays her penitent stepson. For EO, they’re just two people he meets on the way somewhere else.
As an audience, EO’s odyssey will send you on an emotional rollercoaster. His life on the road will make you laugh out loud, but there could also be tears. EO has endured such cruel apathy, he can’t even recognize happiness when he sees it. We recognize it, and we ache for him. Before this film is over, you’ll want to travel into the screen, throw a warm blanket over EO, and bring him home with you.
88 min. R. On demand.
(Additional note: I didn’t find an MPAA rating for EO, so I added the above rating myself. Despite the cute main character, this film has some horrific and frightening scenes. It’s most definitely not for young children.)