This review contains spoilers.
The only thing worse than disliking a movie from the start is loving a movie, and then having the movie betray you in the end. Such a film is EO, a Polish film from veteran filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End) that we experience through the eyes of its title character, an adorable grey donkey who is tossed into a serendipitous odyssey of sorts after political activists ‘liberate’ him from a circus and the care of his loving handler (Sandra Drzymalska). I was quickly swept up in this poor little animal’s journey, as he’s traded from one owner to another, escaping one trap only to enter a new predicament. I was invested and ready to see this donkey find a new forever home.
But Jerzy Skolmowski has other plans for EO. He wants to show us how awful human beings are to animals, so each successive encounter EO has with humanity is darker and more disturbing than the last. Vignettes include EO’s servitude at a fur factory, pulling the corpses of freshly slain animals; being trapped in a trailer after the driver’s throat has been slit by a hungry homeless person; being beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat by hooligans; and finally being swept up with a bunch of cattle for slaughter. There is no subtlety practiced by Skolomowski here. It’s a blunt and brutal film, gratuitous and unpleasantly heavy-handed with its constant ‘animal cruelty’ message.
But is the antidote to real-world animal cruelty a fictional depiction of one? EO is exquisitely photographed and beautifully scored. You enjoy spending time with this donkey, especially in the first thirty minutes. A spooky walk through a forest at night is especially gripping, when EO encounters foxes and human hunters. It’s such a well-crafted and effective film, that it hurts all the more when Skolomowski abuses his power as a filmmaker to run his audience through the wringer. I expected the baseball bat beating scene to be EO’s lowest point, the point from which he would rebound and find happiness and freedom. Instead he finds actress Isabelle Huppert (Elle, Greta) having a sordid affair with her son-in-law before meeting death in that horrible slaughtering plant.
First of all, why Isabelle Huppert and the kinky sex shit, exactly? The donkey doesn’t even see those interactions happen, which makes them feel all the more unnecessary. And on a broader level, why must every step on this random journey get worse and worse for EO? Serendipitous adventures have to be taken with a grain of salt and a healthy suspension of disbelief. But Skolomoski indulges himself by making each step of the journey darker and more upsetting. The film’s horrible (in every way) ending is an irresponsible act of abuse on the filmmaker’s part, unmasking this would-be ‘message movie’ for the manipulative dreck that it is.
Animal lovers, beware.
Oscar Nomination: Best International Feature Film (Poland)