Bestiality is the determinedly nonsnickering subject of Robinson Devor's strenuously aestheticized treatment of the infamous 2005 Enumclaw Horse-Sex Incident. Seattle papers got miles of column inches out of the affair (in which one man died). Everyone wanted to know the sordid details, then—ew!—they didn't. Now we have a locally made docudrama that suffers the same problem: It starts with the facts as a salacious selling point, then abstracts itself swiftly into a miasma of artful sympathy. A few voices from within the Enumclaw ring are heard, actual media footage is incorporated, but the bulk of the film consists of hazy re-enactments and staged tableaux, rendered in Sean Kirby's sensuously murky 16 mm cinematography.
Opens at Varsity, Fri., May 11. Not rated. 76 minutes.
A trucker lovingly bathes his rig in a halo of mist. Men trudge languorously across grassy fields and pose contemplatively in empty barns. The unspoiled rural countryside is framed through the back of a moving horse trailer, without a strip mall, housing tract, or Starbucks in sight. (Anyone who knows South King County will recognize this to be a highly selective view.) It's like a film-school version of America's Most Wanted, only John Walsh never comes out to clearly explain who's who, where or when the action is taking place, and why we're given fake faces and names.
Devor and his co-writer, The Stranger's Charles Mudede, previously collaborated on Police Beat, where concrete particulars also surrendered to dreamy abstraction. Zoo goes further by sublimating itself into the fraudulent: Here is a movie that consents to leave unexamined what its persecuted male subjects would not confront in themselves.
What do we call these men who shun women and obtain sexual gratification in the company of other men? Oh, that's right, we call them "zoo" (their secretive, whispered contraction of zoophilia), a three-letter epithet that, we'r e instructed, must be redeemed, or at least understood. Because labeling would be wrong, and so would judgment. Devor and Mudede scrupulously avoid judging—or asking any hard questions—because Zoo is all about tolerance, don't you see? Parallels must be drawn, and bigots refuted. (The easy-to-loathe, deviant-hating chorus includes Rush Limbaugh and state Sen. Pam Roach.)
Zoo devotes what little intellectual rigor it has to the issue of "consent" between man and beast—a particular concern of animal-rights advocate Jenny Edwards, who rescued one of the horses. (Never mind that cows don't consent to become our hamburgers.) Weirdly, Edwards appears in the film as herself, yet also participates in some re-enactments with the Enumclaw stand-ins. Zoo's fundamental blurring, its confusion of empathy for understanding, reaches its nadir when one actor breaks proscenium to drag in a completely unrelated sob story about a child who drowned in a pool mishap. What does this have to do with horses and grown men? Nothing, except that Zoo insists all the world's victims can be contained in a single tear.
Rather than address facts and fundamentals, Zoo gauzily depicts a "simple, plain world," where sensitive, misunderstood men gather with other sensitive, misunderstood men to feast, drink, harvest dewy apples from the orchard, and strum guitars at sunset. Of poor "Mr. Hands" (Kenneth Pinyan), the Boeing engineer who died of a perforated colon—a very brief TV-screen glimpse confirms how—it's said, "He wanted to be a farmer." Cut to the actor playing Mr. Hands, sitting alone in his Belltown condo, obviously miserable because he's estranged from nature, from the company of other nonjudgmental men who like to watch and film one another while being topped by stallions.
Not that he would ever sleep with those men. Because he wasn't gay, no!, nor were they, nor is that word ever uttered in Zoo. A film that's all about tolerance turns out to be a sterling example of the art of denial.