Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski and written by Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska, “EO” follows the titular donkey as it travels all over Poland, witnessing the good and the bad aspects of humanity and being influenced by those experiences in positive or negative ways. Technically speaking, that is all there is to the plot. The cinematography by Michał Dymek, the editing by Agnieszka Glińska, the music by Paweł Mykietyn, and the performances extracted from the six donkeys who play EO make for a hypnotic viewing experience. It does occasionally drag because, ultimately, you are being asked to project feelings onto a character that’s literally a donkey. It’s an incredibly cute donkey, but a donkey nonetheless. However, despite the simplistic premise, EO’s journey covers a lot of topics before reaching its ambiguous and tragic end. So, let’s talk about it.
Major Spoilers Ahead
The first time we see EO, the donkey is part of a circus, which we know is a profession that isn’t necessarily good for the animals that are a part of their acts. As a kid, we used to be enthralled watching them do all kinds of crazy stunts. But a trip “backstage” would usually reveal that those animals were underfed and severely abused. Thankfully, EO had Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) to care for it and give it all the love and care in the world. The activists who arrive to liberate the animals from the circus appear to be kind. However, their activism is merely performative. That doesn’t mean that all kinds of activism are bad. The ones that appear out of nowhere to “help” animals and then essentially push them into a more traumatic place than the one they were in already are as bad as the animal haters.
Anyway, after being separated from Kasandra, the next time that EO experiences any form of kindness is at a farm where the owners nurture it and then take it for interactive sessions with children with intellectual disabilities. After meeting Kasandra for the last time and running away from the farm, EO is treated nicely when a vet takes care of its injuries and when an apparent vagabond named Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo) comes across it. As far as I can say, these short bursts of warmth speak to the underlying characteristics that are synonymous with caring and being considerate that humans are capable of expressing but are failing to bring to the fore because of the ever-growing cynicism and penchant for violence.
The moment EO steps away from the farm, it comes this close to being killed by a stray bullet from a hunter’s or a poacher’s gun. The closer EO gets to civilization, the nature of the violence increases. To be honest, I didn’t know where the whole “EO watches a football match” was going to go because there’s not much to expect from a donkey watching a game. But since EO’s braying causes one of the players to miss his penalty kick, the fans of the losing team blame it for botching the attempt to score a goal. After a brief altercation with the referees, it seems like the issue is going to subside, and everyone is simply going to move on. Nope! While celebrating the success of the winning team, the losing team’s fans raid the party and break private and public property. And when they find the innocent EO eating grass all by itself while unknowingly wearing a muffler with the winning team’s colors on it, they hurt the donkey pretty badly. For what? Because a local team lost a local football match to another local team. If that’s not the peak of human pettiness, I don’t know what is.
Even when EO is nursed back to normalcy, all it witnesses is death and violence because it is forced to work for an animal farm that kills foxes for fur! Well, EO does kill the person responsible for killing the foxes. You can term that as justice or a way of showing that the violence that humans display is rubbing off on EO. The Polish driver’s death is random, and it ends up stopping EO from being turned into salami. The moment does underscore the fact that it has become such a “dog eat dog” world (although dogs are probably more respectful towards their own species than humans are) that there’s no space for acts of kindness.
“EO” oscillates between locked-off wide shots and hand-held close-ups. But around the midpoint of the film, Skolimowski paints the whole frame red (a color that shows up in flashes throughout the film) and uses a drone shot to traverse the junglescape and arrive at the massive windmills on the horizon. Most of the cinematography is grounded to be in line with EO’s perspective. However, this is the only time that the camera takes on an omniscient perspective to show that this is something that is beyond EO’s (or even the audience’s understanding). Because windmills are usually associated with environmentally friendly sources of energy. That said, as soon as a bird drops dead on the windmill’s reflection in a muddy puddle, we are reminded that we are only fooling ourselves by saying that any man-made source of energy can be a viable option. And by the time we realize this undeniable fact, the environment around us is going to be a hot mess.
The other time that “EO” goes into red mode is right after EO’s injury, as it focuses on a robot dog (yes, just like the one from “Metalhead,” but very real) tumbling and walking around randomly. And then, the thing starts to look at its own reflection and possibly wonder about the nature of its existence. I think this psychedelic moment is a commentary on humanity’s inability to protect actual animals while creating artificial ones in the image of those animals. That’s likely the case because caring for an actual living being requires compassion, but you don’t need to do the same for a robot animal. If it malfunctions, you can either get it fixed with a software or hardware update or just replace it. In addition to that, given how much the film focuses on EO’s manual labor (something that donkeys have been synonymous with for a long time), the robot dog also serves as the replacement for donkeys in terms of doing various kinds of physical work.
‘EO’ Ending Explained: What Is The Deal With The Countess and Vito? Does The Donkey Die?
Like many of the wild and seemingly haphazard turns in the film, after the death of the Polish driver who was taking EO to be turned into salami, the donkey is picked up by a guy named Vito, who admits that he has eaten donkey salami. For the first time in the whole movie, the narrative enters a space that EO can’t physically access. The donkey wanders around outside while Vito and her stepmother, called the Countess (Isabelle Huppert), argue about the reason behind Vito’s suspension and how the Countess has sold the ancestral house and is moving away to Italy. As Vito goes in for a kiss with The Countess (an incestuous curveball right there for you), the movie cuts back to EO as it wanders around the landscape, watching the foliage and the water flowing through the dam. Moments later, EO finds itself on a cattle farm where the cows are clearly being taken for slaughter. The farmer doesn’t discriminate between the cows and the donkey, and before we can see EO being turned into, maybe, salami, the film thankfully ends.
It’s a confusing ending, and there’s no doubt about that. My best guess is that, with this ending, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska have tried to show how we’ve limited the life of an animal like EO while having no clue about our own lives. An optimistic conclusion would’ve made its “live and let live” message a little clearer. But this nihilistic and bitter ending makes it apparent that no level of surface-level optimism is going to improve the situation we’ve created for ourselves and the lives around us. That ending also emphasizes the fact that an unsupervised animal like EO is just going to live its best life, wandering around whatever landscape we’ve left for them and it will thrive. The moment we deem ourselves smarter than the animals in our ecosystem, things are going to go downhill. And this is a change that we can bring about on a personal and industrial level. We can be kinder to the animals around us while asking entire factories centered around slaughtering animals to make reforms. We can make excuses and keep complaining about how that’s going to take time, or we can just start right now for the sake of the animals, the environment, and humankind.
“EO” is a 2022 Drama Satire film directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.