Julien Donkey-Boy

USA 1999

Reviewed by Xan Brooks


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New Jersey, the present. Wandering in a local park, schizophrenic Julien attacks a small boy whom he finds playing with a turtle. Julien works as an attendant at a school for the blind, but the majority of his time is spent at the family home he shares with his father, his grandmother, pregnant sister Pearl and aspiring athlete brother Chris.

Julien's mother died giving birth to Chris, but Pearl preserves Julien's fantasy by masquerading as their mother and phoning him from a nearby room. In the meantime, Julien's father rules the roost: lecturing his offspring over the dinner table, devising fitness regimes for Chris and pouring scorn on Pearl, who is unmarried and will not name the father of her baby. Julien befriends Chrissy, a young blind girl who dreams of being an ice-skater. He travels with her and Pearl to the local skating rink. Picking her way across the ice, Pearl falls heavily and is rushed to hospital, where she loses the baby. Julien tells the nurse that the baby is his, and escapes from the hospital with the foetus. Back home, he clambers into bed and cradles the dead baby.


Julien Donkey-Boy is topped and tailed with tragedies. In its first moments, the title character is seen attacking a small boy and then brushing earth over what appears to be a shallow grave. In its dying minutes, Julien's sister Pearl suffers a miscarriage while carrying what turns out to be his child. Tragedy number one arrives abruptly and is never referred to again (was it a hallucination?). Tragedy two is signposted with a spectral subtlety throughout: little clues sprinkled amid the seeming chaos. In this way the second film from Gummo creator Harmony Korine follows its own scrambled sense of plot logic and runs to its own rhythm.

One could argue that, in this respect, Korine's film is in perfect symbiosis with its lead character. Ewen Bremner's Julien (a suburban Nosferatu with raisin-black eyes and detachable dentistry) is a schizophrenic, and Julien Donkey-Boy toils to provide an approximation of the schizophrenic's take on the world. Its narrative is scattered, a burst of freeform vignettes. Its editing switches between stuttering jump cuts and leisurely freeze frames. Its soundtrack is muddied and discordant (some of the dialogue sounds as if it's been recorded from a tannoy). Whatever its merits, Julien Donkey-Boy is never an easy film; Korine flouts its awkwardness like a badge of honour.

That said, this low-life burlesque is a constant fascination: a maddening, show-offy assault on the senses. Julien's garbled fixation on religious teaching ("curs-ed be he who sleeps with his sister") hints at the film's denouement, while certain scenes (the fevered Gospel meeting, the wrestling bout) flare up startlingly amid the murky drift that surrounds them. In acting terms, Julien Donkey-Boy swiftly becomes a two-horse race. With Chloë Sevigny as Pearl an oddly watery presence here, the real stand-off is between Bremner's central character and director Werner Herzog - compelling as Julien's pedantic, tyrannical father. Certainly, Herzog's earnest description of the climax of Dirty Harry ("I truly like that stuff") provides the film's bizarre comedic highlight.

Julien Donkey-Boy is not without precedent. In spirit, the film falls within a strain of kooky family dramas, its portrait of an oddball household harking back to the likes of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and television's The Munsters. In style, it reprises the stream-of-consciousness techniques that Korine honed in his 1997 debut Gummo. The fact, then, that Julien Donkey-Boy is the first US picture shot under the Dogme 95 vow of chastity (and uses Festen cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) finally seems of little significance. Although shot on pixellated, handheld digital video, the film marks no grand departure from Korine's earlier work.

This, perhaps, is the film's final failing. Gummo provoked wildly differing responses. Was this a jumbled, non-narrative tour de force or a cheap freakshow in arthouse bunting? Was it the one truly revolutionary film of the past 25 years (as Bernardo Bertolucci claimed) or one of the worst pictures ever made (as New York Times critic Janet Maslin reckoned)? So Gummo exploded, and Julien Donkey-Boy repeats. Second time around, the shock of the new just isn't shocking any more.


Harmony Korine
Cary Woods
Scott Macaulay
Robin O'Hara
Harmony Korine
Director of Photography
Anthony Dod Mantle
Valdís Óskarsdóttir
©Independent Pictures, Inc.
Production Companies
An Independent Pictures production in association with Forensic/391
An IP production
Line Producer
Jim Czarnecki
Office Co-ordinators
Jason Rothenberg
Christine Brown
Production Manager
Carrie Fix
Technical Production Manager
Jill Goldstein
Location Manager
Kathy Ciric
Location Co-ordinator
Brian 'Bear' Schmidt
Michael Taylor
Billy Hopkins
Suzanne Smith
Kerry Barden
Lori Eastside
Mark Bennett
Additional Camera Operators
Alejandro Castillo
John Perez
Richard Rutkowski
Henry Corra
Set Co-ordinator
Steve Beatrice
Additional Set Co-ordination
Jeremy Buhler
The Tape House
REI Media Group
Music Supervision
Independent Pictures:
Tracy McKnight
"O, mio babbino caro" - BRT Philharmonic Orchestra (Brussels), soprano: Miriam Gauci; "Happy Days" - Jim O'Rourke; Dvorák's "String Quartet in F Major, op. 96, 1st Movement, "American"", Dvorák's "5 Bagatelles, Op. 47, 1st Movement" - Takacs Quartet; "Sugar Baby" - Dock Boggs; "Soft Ash" - Darrin Verhagen; "Beauty" - Alan Lamb; "Shop in Store", "Mediation" - Oval; "Compassion for M" - Aerial M; "Frère Jacques"; "When the Saints Come Marching In"; "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean"; "I Got You (I Feel Good)"; Strauss' "On the Beautiful Blue Danube"; "Chopsticks"; "Hine Ma Tov" (liturgical hymn)
Brian Miksis
Post-production Adviser
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Tuy Tham
Paul Mantel
Stunt Co-ordinators
Manny Siverio
Jeff Ward
Ewen Bremner
Chloë Sevigny
Werner Herzog
Evan Neuman
Joyce Korine
Chrissy Kobylak
Alvin Law
card-playing neighbour
Brian Fisk
pond boy
Miriam Martinez
teenage girl
Edgar Eriksson
bearded man
James Moix
dancing man
Victor Varnado
Oliver A. Bueno
Roger Harris
Joseph Padilla
Freddie Perez
Olivia Perez
Carmelo Rodriguez
Carmel Gayle
clothing store cashier
Herman Reimmer
man in clothing store
Virginia Reath
Mary O'Hara
Donna Smith
dancing woman
Gary Bergman
piano player
Tom Mullica
Johnny Mae Allen
Timothy Allen
George Ashiotis
Benjamin Butler
Joneiry Delarosa
Eternal Divine
Edery Herrera
Ruby Rodriguez
Xenophon A. Theophall
Archie MacGregor
Jeanmarie Evans
amnesiac patients
Ricky Ashley
Hasidic boy
Courtney Deblis
Marybeth Grunstra
Heidi Vanderhoof
Hy Richards
Barry Wernick
Clinton Wright
Carmela Garcia
Metro Tartan Distributors
8,960 feet
99 minutes 34 seconds
Dolby SR
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011