The Reeler


April 25, 2007


Strangely arid vibe mars potential of horse-"loving" doc

Zoo is a documentary about horse fucking that takes its subject matter seriously. The director, Robinson Devor, blends expressionistic farmland imagery with audio confessions from Washington residents who indulge in this unlikely sex act. Eschewing any semblance of vitality, Devor ties together the dreamy non-narrative with an awe-inspiring score. While he respectfully avoids condescending to his subjects, he also completely ignores the reality that most people will need some sense of orientation before getting immersed in a poetic study of bestiality. The movie has false pretensions to being an investigative work; it all feels very Errol Morris, albeit if the acclaimed documentarian had lost his sense of cosmic irony and rebelled against his audience’s comfort.

The so-called story hook is provided by a 2005 incident: During one of the regular gatherings of “zoophiles” out in the country, a young man lost his life due to a perforated colon. You can fill in the details on your own—to his credit, Devor doesn’t provide any overtly cringe-worthy moments pertaining to the accident or the actual sex act. (Inquiring minds can satisfy their curiosity on the Internet.)

Even if you shun the details of the death, however, the story has immense appeal as a dark meditation on the malleability of human nature. I would love to dig into the background that led someone to reject the demands of social conformity and turn to another species for comfort. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man accomplished this task with full awareness of the obvious absurdities at hand. Herzog acknowledged that living with bears (and inevitably being devoured by them) isn’t just rebelling against civilization -- it’s indulging in a form of madness. Then Herzog -- whose directorial career is essentially predicated on dissecting madness -- took a step back and tried to understand its composition. He even evaluated its moral standards.

Devor, however, gives us virtually endless reenactments of faceless individuals enjoying gorgeous sunsets while lyrical voiceovers muse in low tones about equine obsession. The interviews indicate that Devor had exclusive access to these people, gaining their trust and placating their discomfort. But it seems that his ability to unlock the material’s secretive qualities prevents the movie from criticizing them. Without the presence of a strong voice to confirm the suspicion that this is wildly unorthodox -- maybe even unstable -- behavior, Devor makes his viewers feel culpable for their (relative) normality.

Considering its sensationalist hook, Zoo exudes a strangely arid vibe. Less plot-driven than experimental, it never fully engages. Still, the native Seattlite in me allows that Devor really nailed the setting; Washington’s rolling hills and lush greenery have never looked finer. The movie could be viewed with the volume down and ninety percent of it would look like a National Geographic special on horses. That’s the real problem, because the animal that ought to have be studied -- man -- hardly gets any screen time at all.

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