In gentler times, a film that sets out to seriously tackle taboo zoophilia might have elicited a bump on the cause celebre Richter scale, but in these post-everything days, when images and ideas far more controversial and chilling are readily available to any who care to look for them, there's little space to spark real ire about a work like "Zoo." This is a shame, but not because Robinson Devor's third film warrants a trip through the rightwing noise machine, but because it's generally terrific, and deserves to find an audience, by whatever means.
Devor succeeds because he's created a film depicting a lifestyle scandalous and controversial to the mainstream that's completely disinterested in fomenting scandal and controversy. It's obvious that he's wise to the macabre curiosity that surrounds zoophilia - the way it's furnished hours of late night gross-out enjoyment in freshman dorms nationwide. But "Zoo"'s more "The New World" than "Jackass;" Devor's taken a productive risk in that he has indeed made a movie about men who have and desire intercourse with horses, but anyone who enters looking for a dirty and salacious experience will be sorely disappointed. "Zoo" may be the "horse-fucking movie," but it certainly doesn't deliver on that most basic premise.
The film's lengthier original title "In the Forest There Is Every Kind of Bird," provides a better upfront hint of Devor's tack than the more cleanly enigmatic "Zoo." Instead of graphic videotape of the events in question (which does exist and has circulated throughout the internet), the filmmaker coaxes up seductive washes of imagery to evoke the Pacific Northwest setting of the "Enumclaw horse incident," which left mild engineer Kennth Pinyan dead due to a perforated colon. In deference to the delicacy of the subject matter, Devor allows most of his main interview subjects to remain off-screen; without access to "talking heads," the unfortunately bland basis for most contemporary documentary, he fills space with dramatic recreations and montage, the majority of which entice even as they precipitate further movement into a discomfiting space. "Tone poem" is an often misused descriptor for things neither tonally coherent nor poetic, but it certainly feels right here - perhaps never more so than in Devor's hypnotic close-ups of overripe blackberries, or Tarkovsky-esque tracking shots past groves of trees. Watching "Zoo" feels like spending a fall evening out amongst massive evergreens watching the light die from the sky: comfortingly beautiful, but somehow dangerous as well. Devor's impressionistic take on taboo, and how those who practice desire outside culture's slim margins of acceptance, is a case of physical necessities breeding aesthetic ingenuity.
The filmmaker's second film, "Police Beat," was an unexpected surprise from an American independent scene that continues to regularly under-perform. Maybe it's the hangover from Tarantino that's led a generation of young filmmakers to forsake the other parts of cinema in favor of the primacy of the written word (though after both "Kill Bill"s and the explosion of his "Death Proof" from chat to chase, even he seems to be in a more spectacular mode), but in Devor's hands, the idea of an ultra-low budget indie that looked and felt fantastic became reality. "Zoo" more than continues in its predecessor's languorous hyperaestheticized path, and its focus on loves requited and non echoes "Police Beat"'s narrative in ways that their surface concerns (African-born bike cop living in Seattle in the fever of new love, zoophile men) belie. After three films Devor seems to have carved a curious filmmaking niche for himself out of his Seattle environs; let's hope he never gets too comfortable to keep churning out works that lull even as they unsettle.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]