Robinson Devor's strangely unemphatic bestiality doc Zoo (currently playing at the IFC Center) tempers its lurid subject matter with lingering shots of rural farmland and an unwillingness to provide graphic details, a strategy that works both for and against it, offering a subjective (and largely sympathetic) view of the zoophilia experience while leaving the audience frustrated at their lack of intellectual understanding of the entire proceedings. Devor was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying "I aestheticized the sleaze right out of [the subject matter]," but perhaps a little sleaze would have made for a stronger and more satisfying film. Still, Devor's impressionistic approach surrounds a seemingly repugnant act with an aura of beauty and the picture's odd hybrid of sensational subject matter and slow paced shots of rural landscapes creates a unique, and occasionally breathtaking, cinematic experience.
The film re-creates the gatherings of a group of middle-aged men who met at a Washington state farm with the express purpose of being sodomized by horses. Their activities came to public awareness when one of them, an aerospace engineer identified in the film only as "Mr. Hands," died of a ruptured colon following a bestialic encounter. Devor's approach to the material, gleaned through interviews with the participants, is to treat his subject in a carefully non-exploitative manner. Since the majority of the material comes from the testimony of the "zoos," the film presents them in a largely sympathetic light, as maladjusted men who, having difficulty interacting with humans, turn instead to the non-judgmental embrace of animals.
Devor is careful to shy away from the graphic accounts of the encounters, with the participants refusing to give intimate details except to insist on the consenuality of the sex, with the horse mounting the men without coercion. The sex itself is glimpsed only momentarily, as Mr. Hands' family watch footage on a video CD following his death. Devor's camera circles around the room, alternating shots of the family's reactions with brief peeks at the television monitor. Still, the director's restraint also works against him, since more details are needed to get an accurate picture of the entire situation. At 75 minutes, the film leaves viewers strangely unsatisfied and without the sense of really grasping the "zoo" culture or the motivations of the participants.
Devor's lingering camera and slow-moving dolly shots accentuate the idyllic setting of the encounters and the feeling of release the men experience in their trips to the farm. He doesn't give us much background on the lives of his subjects, except for Mr Hands, but the sense of escape from a demanding and unfeeling world that the zoos experience in their rural retreat is emphasized. In one shot, one of the men is filmed sitting in a chair watching television footage of the moon landings. Devor places the man and the TV at opposite ends of the shot, while the middle is dominated by a large window, revealing a moon-filled sky over a field. As Devor's stationary camera fixes the shot, the otherworldliness of the men's retreat, reflected both historically (through the television footage) and in the present becomes clear and the sense of beauty the men feel in their interactions is allowed full (though not graphic) expression. Devor's approach may leave the viewer wanting more information about the culture of zoophilia, but he perfectly captures the impressionistic experience of that culture's participants.