Let's get the niceties out of the way: Zoo is a documentary about people who have sex with horses. I tell you this upfront because that fact gets a bit obscured beneath all the pretentiousness ladled on by the filmmakers.
Director Robinson Devor, who co-wrote Zoo with Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger writer Charles Mudede, employs reenactments with actors, a haunting music score and ethereal cinematography to tell the bizarre story of "Mr. Hands," the Internet handle of an aerospace engineer who bled to death in July, 2005, from injuries sustained while making sweet love to a stallion in Enumclaw, Washington. In focusing on the sad case of the 45-year-old Seattle man, the film explores the world of zoophiles -- otherwise known as zoos -- who enjoy getting their freak on with, ahem, animals.
From such pursuits comes scrupulously high-minded cinema. Go figure. Devor assiduously keeps Zoo from wading around in the muck of sensationalism. Nothing untoward to see here, proclaims the movie as it rolls out a dreamy procession of rural Washington landscapes bathed in velvety hues. In mostly voiceover interviews, we hear from friends of Mr. Hands, fellow zoophiles who met at the Enumclaw farmhouse on weekends to drink, eat, chat and make periodic visits to the barn.
None of the interviewees sound particularly torn by questions of morality, animal abuse or even propriety. Indeed, the commitment to humanize Mr. Hands and his zoophiles is central to the mission of Zoo. To hear the zoos tell it, a good shagging from the likes of Mr. Ed is a singular euphoria. A horse, we are informed, doesn't judge you or talk your ear off about the latest Madonna record. "I don't need a high level of emotional interaction," says one participant, "whether it be human or otherwise." Another equine lothario notes that "it's just like you love your wife or your kids. It's the same thing."
Um, yeah ... right. Certainly, Zoo deserves to be commended for reminding us that a loving ex-husband and father died as the result of that ill-fated man-horse dalliance. Point taken. But what was the point of making this picture if not to spotlight the darker perversities of sexual fetishism? The film is almost risibly tasteful.
Is the overriding aim of Zoo to stress that zoophiles are people, too?
If so, the sentiment is true enough. But one supposes that the artsy-fartsy stylistics employed here -- including an inexplicable interview with one of the cast members about his thoughts on the real-life case -- also could easily have been transposed for a sympathetic portrait of pedophiles, for that matter. At some point, the refusal to render moral judgment is itself a sort of dehumanizing exercise. Perhaps a more truthful title for the flick should've been: They Screw Horses, Don't They?
You wouldn't expect it for a film of this subject matter, but Zoo is burgeoning with sumptuous visuals that are well-preserved in this transfer. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the print transfer beautifully captures the lush blues and greens that dominate the film's look.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is unremarkable, but the sound mix is clear and clean and gets the job done. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing-impaired.
The commentary by Devor and Mudede doesn't shed much light on the film. The pair appear to be serious-minded, well-intentioned filmmakers, but it is a bit telling that even their commentary is mired in euphemisms and oblique phrasing. Also included are trailers to other films.
In the end, Zoo is a frustrating experience. It takes an undoubtedly perverse topic and strives to infuse it with a misguided sensuality. The quasi-documentary is worth a look for curiosity's sake, but the filmmakers' unflagging artsiness is so much beating a dead ... well, you get the idea.