A horse is a horse, of course — unless it’s the one at the center of “Zoo,” a breathtakingly original nonfiction work by Seattle-based filmmaker Robinson Devor (whose “Police Beat” was among the highlights of Sundance’s 2005 dramatic competition). Based on the widely reported July 2005 incident in which a man died of a perforated colon after getting intimate with an Arabian stallion, pic will disappoint those seeking cheap, perverse thrills and likely baffle as many viewers as it intrigues. But enthusiastic reviews and sheer curiosity value should bring healthy specialized biz and strong festival interest to this ThinkFilm release.
The facts of the case are by now well-known: Kenneth Pinyan, a 45-year-old Boeing engineer, dies shortly after being anonymously dropped at an emergency room in rural Washington. The ensuing investigation leads police to a nearby farm, where they discover videotape of Pinyan and other men engaging in sexual acts with the equine residents. Because bestiality isn’t illegal in Washington state, no charges are filed, but the story becomes a local scandal and eventually national news.
Given a premise that smacks of sensationalism, Devor and co-scenarist Charles Mudede have taken anything but an exploitative approach. They’ve crafted a subdued, mysterious and intensely beautiful film that presents bestiality not for the purpose of titillation (a la the 1970s porn films starring Bodil Joensen) or comic relief (as in last year’s “Clerks II”), but as a way of investigating the subjective nature of morality.
In “Zoo,” Devor and Mudede show considerably less interest in the events of that July night than in the circumstances that brought them about — specifically, the online world of zoophiles, of which Pinyan and others at the scene were members.
Faced with the dilemma of having a dead protagonist and multiple anonymous sources who refused to appear on camera, they use extensive audio interviews as the soundtrack for a series of visual dramatizations in which professional actors star alongside those subjects who were willing to appear as themselves.
Front and center are conversations with three “zoo people,” all of whom are referred to by their online handles: Coyote, who hails from a Baptist family in a small Virginia backwater and who moved to Washington at the behest of an Internet friend; the Happy Horseman, a truck-stop proprietor who talks of a global zoophile community; and H, a maintenance worker on the farm where the men had gathered many times before the night of the fatal incident.
The men speak with remarkable candor and lack of embarrassment, explaining their animal affinity as a natural desire. As Devor and Mudede weave their stories together with that of Pinyan (referred to in the film as Mr. Hands) — a divorce who, on the weekend of his death, was being visited by his ex-wife and young son — the result is like the lifting of a veil on a hidden America.
Despite the film’s compassionate approach, the question of whether these men were right or wrong is one on which the filmmakers reserve judgment, instead turning their attention to the larger question of how human beings have revised and re-evaluated codes of acceptable behavior over the ages. The actions of Pinyan, et al., may seem reprehensible to most, but as even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh suggests in a priceless audio clip heard late in the film, can it be disputed, given the evidence, that the horse was a willing participant?
The film’s dramatic re-enactments, shot in lush 16mm by cinematographer Sean Kirby (previously responsible for the equally impressive 35mm widescreen lensing of “Police Beat”) create a fascinating blurring of the line between narrative and documentary storytelling, reminiscent of the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. They also offer further evidence of Devor’s gifts as a visual storyteller: When he turns his camera on the world, it’s as though he is seeing everything for the first time, whether it’s the city lights of Seattle shining like diamonds under an evening sky or the unspoiled natural vistas of rural Washington.
Other tech credits are impressive, particularly the seamless editing of Joe Shapiro and original music by Paul Matthew Moore.