Th!nkFilm // 2007 // 76 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // November 19th, 2007
Horse love. Literally.
Zoo is an incredibly seductive, inherently conflicted film experience. A documentary dealing with a real-life incident where a man was dropped off at a hospital and quickly died from internal complications caused by having sexual relations with a horse, Zoo is a film that dares take on one of the last great taboos: bestiality. The film draws together a handful of people involved -- fellow "zoos" (what zoophiles offhandedly refer to themselves as) who knew the victim and took him to the hospital after the tragic incident, the animal rescuer who was called in to deal with horses after the police caught wind of the situation, and the unsuspecting, oft-vacationing elderly couple whose ranch became the covert central meeting point for zoophiles from all over the country.
But make no mistake, this isn't your typical doc: quite understandably many of the participants had no desire to go on camera, a reality that forced writer/director Robinson Devor to come up with a different approach to the material unless he wanted to make a film almost entirely composed of talking heads with shadowed-out faces. Instead, Devor's tactic is to stage all of the events described in the film, and then using recorded interviews to serve as the narration.
The resulting film, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a rather bizarre one -- Devor's aesthetic approach leans heavily towards languid art-house lyricism. What we end up with is an exceedingly beautiful film about an extremely unsettling topic. Devor and co-writer Charles Mudede are admirably fair in the way they present the participant's stories, keeping an empathetic focus on the psychology rather than the sensationalistic aspects of the situation, and there's an adamant refusal on the filmmaker's part to allow anybody involved to be out-and-out demonized. A variety of distinct perspectives are presented, ranging from the brusque police officers who handled this unusual case to the zoos themselves, who describe their relationships with their horses in such loving, respectful tones ("sex was only a small aspect of it," one revealingly muses) that it's easy to start feeling sympathetic as they describe how the hungry media transformed them into irredeemable degenerates. Ultimately, the most interesting voice that emerges is that of the animal rescuer, who is, interestingly, also the film's only significant female participant. Her perspective as an outsider closely mirrors ours as the film viewer -- beginning with a sense of total disorientation at the beginning of the film to a point near the conclusion where she candidly admits, "I don't yet quite know how I feel about [zoophilia], but I'm right at the edge of being able to understand it."
Th!nkFilm offers up a very nice DVD presentation. The film's beautiful blue and gray-hued imagery is captured nicely in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen presentation, and the audio track is a perfectly acceptable mix that does justice to the ever-important voice-over narration and the arpeggio-heavy score by Paul Matthew Moore. White English subtitles are provided for the hearing impaired. As for extras, the most substantial is a feature-length commentary by Devor and Mudede, and while it's initially to hear about the film and artistic decisions made in the development stages, they come off as so serious-minded that after a while listening to them begins to border on the tedious. There is also a gallery of trailers for several other Th!nkFilm releases.
Despite for the fact that "Mature Audiences Only" is emblazoned on the DVD cover (the film is unrated), there is almost nothing explicit about Zoo, and everybody seems carefully roundabout in even mentioning anything remotely sexual in nature, which is undoubtedly the reason why the film has remained relatively under the radar despite its controversial subject matter. When it comes down to it, the filmmakers have somehow managed to make an extremely uncontroversial film out of one of the most controversial topics imaginable.
And that doesn't lessen the complexity of the film in any way, because in the end I really can't make up my mind about Zoo. I was seduced by the gorgeous visual sense and laudable humanism displayed in the storytelling, but I admit I couldn't shake a slight but undeniable queasiness throughout the film that ultimately rendered it a rather distasteful film experience (which in itself kind of bothers me since I consider myself sympathetic to a wide spectrum of sexual expression, though like the horse rescuer I'm really on the fence on this one too). But it's an interesting film, no doubt, whatever side of the coin you ultimately fall on.
So in the end, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary with Director and Screenwriter