Harmony Korine may be the most empathetic filmmaker America ever produced. This is especially true of his early films, which present the abandoned detritus of the American Dream: impoverished, uneducated people living among trash, victims and perpetuators of violence as a means of acting out. Gummo and Kids were so controversial in their unvarnished view of marginalized life that they spurned a level of commentary that was rare in the pre-Internet discourse, prompting wide condemnation and occasional stalwart defenses in various columns. Julien Donkey-Boy did little to alter this trajectory. Opening at the Venice Film Festival, it played a single theater in Los Angeles before slipping quietly to home video, what little press it received largely baffled and hostile. Yet the film stands today as one of Korine’s most powerful works, the end of his first period of filmmaking and possibly his most tender work in spite of its extreme depiction of hopelessness in America.

The first American movie filmed in accordance with the Dogme 95 principles that had briefly gripped the Danish film scene, Julien Donkey-Boy has the look of other Dogme works. Shot on MiniDV, the lo-fi, primitive digital image was transferred to 16mm before being blown up to 35mm, taking an already poor image quality and blowing up all of its flaws. The film is swathed in digital snow, so washed out that any time a character gets further away from the camera than a basic long shot their bodies begin to dissolve, their definitions becoming porous as they disappear into the static fog. Color timing is so poor that most frames end up a blotchy collision of standard teal and orange contrast, and the handheld filming renders motion in blurs that call attention to the falsity of the image even as nominal realism is being depicted.

The film begins with Julien (Ewen Bremner), a young schizophrenic, inadvertently killing a child who won’t let the young man play with his turtle. This scramble of violence gives way to a POV shot from the dead kid’s perspective as Julien kneels over him in horror and prays for forgiveness. This is a striking introduction, but as he did with Gummo, Korine stages scenes as disconnected vignettes that provide insight via collage, avoiding symbolism or even narrative to shade in his characters by their strange, almost ritualistic habits. There’s no follow-up on the murder as the film instead pivots to capture Julien and his family in their daily activities.

At home, Julien’s pregnant sister, Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), practices ice dancing routines while their brother, Chris (Evan Neumann), trains as a high school wrestler. Korine films both siblings’ training with a loving detail that belies their strapped resources; Pearl, restricted to unfrozen ground, can only twirl in her bedroom against repeated images of an ice dancing competition on TV, while Chris engages in ad-hoc regimens of tackling trash cans and climbing the stairs using only his arms as he has no access to proper gym equipment. Julien himself lives a series of nervous repetitions, wandering streets while rambling conversations out loud from which passersby caught in his loops of dialogue nervously attempt to extricate themselves. At home, he even engages in an imaginary confrontation with Hitler, pointing a rifle at dead space and yelling at the Führer for his genocide.

Most magnetic, though, is the family patriarch, an unnamed father played by Werner Herzog. Herzog, an early champion of Korine, clearly feels a kinship with the young director, and his performance here embodies his own notions of “ecstatic truth” using fiction and performance to get at a deeper reality than mere documentation. The father is an abusive, dead-end figure who spends his days guzzling cough syrup and yelling at his kids. He stares out the window of the family’s rundown house and asks “Where are you, Mount Everest,” looking for the life’s purpose that never showed itself. The father “trains” Chris by doing such things as spraying the boy with ice water to toughen him and rages at Pearl’s attempts to learn the harp. The man’s endless hostility toward his kids provides the closest thing to a thematic bedrock that the film has, but even this is never positioned as an “explanation” for their behavior.

Instead, Korine pores over the characters’ activities, and for all the moments of violence and despair, there are also bits of great beauty. Julien works at a school for the blind, and his scenes with the students are filled with spirit, most notably one where a black albino man launches into a passionate, playful rap that makes everyone in the room bob along with delight. Elsewhere, an armless man converses with Herzog about his positive outlook on life, even playing a rousing drum solo with his feet. Disabled people feature heavily in Korine’s early films, and it would be easy to say at first glance that he might exploit them, but Korine meets both his actors and nonprofessionals on the characters’ own terms, refusing to put words in anyone’s mouth or use people for some kind of pat thematic statement.

His laissez-faire approach is best seen in a late interaction at a skating rink between Pearl and a blind girl who says, “I used to think I could see a lot but I found out I couldn’t see very much,” the implication being that she only ever saw the limitations of her life when someone more ostensibly “normal” pointed it out to her. That may be the closest thing to a totalizing summary of Korine’s early work, which honestly and evocatively captures the social contexts that hold back characters while also remaining resolutely within their perspectives as they live out their sense of normalcy. That this moment is interspersed with Julien’s humorous attempts to sell some homemade skates to a thoroughly uninterested Hasidic boy speaks to Korine’s refusal to let a single tone define his films. Julien Donkey-Boy ends tragically with a development that feels like the film’s sole concession to narrative expectation, but even that concludes on an insoluble notion of self-comfort and compartmentalization that suggests its characters long ago learned how to deal with trauma. If 1999 stands as a watershed of old masters and emerging mavericks producing some of their most prestigious work, Julien Donkey-Boy is a refreshing burst of outsider art from a genuine outlier, a film that prods the edges of American cinema with a boldness that few of its peers can match.

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