If you were to watch Robinson Devor's "Zoo" with no sound, it might take you a long time to realize that the subject of this eerily beautiful movie is bestiality. Frame by frame, "Zoo" casts a dark, disturbingly lyrical spell, transporting you into a world most people have never contemplated: the subculture of zoophiles, men who find emotional and physical fulfillment in interspecies sex. Rarely has a movie's style been so radically, and deliberately, at odds with its subject matter.
The inspiration for this meditation on the wilder shores of human desire was the true story of a divorced Boeing executive and father—his Internet name was Mr. Hands—who died of massive internal bleeding after having sex with a stallion. This happened in 2005 in the town of Enumclaw, Wash., not far from Seattle, where Devor, an acclaimed independent filmmaker ("The Woman Chaser," "Police Beat"), lived. One of the reasons the group of zoophiles congregated in Washington was that there were no laws against bestiality there. (That's changed as a result of this incident.) Unable to bring anything other than minor charges against any of the men, the state, needing to dole out some punishment, decreed that the stallion that killed Mr. Hands be gelded. Devor shows this procedure, performed on a sedated animal, and lets the irony speak for itself.
The filmmaker was repulsed by the local media frenzy surrounding the case, dominated by tabloid sensationalism, moralistic outrage and leering jokes. "Zoo" is his attempt, with co-writer Charles Mudede, to try to understand the mind-set of this bizarre subculture, using techniques that scramble our notions of documentary and fiction. He interviewed the actual members of the group, but only one agreed to appear on camera. He uses actors to stage impressionistic but wordless "re-enactments" of scenes from their lives, along with interviews with local authorities and animal activists, creating a dreamlike, elliptical reverie that neither condemns nor condones what it explores.
But does Devor's extreme estheticizing illuminate or obfuscate his taboo subject? As pure cinema, "Zoo" is a transfixing, albeit unnerving, document. But how does its lyrical style connect to men like Mr. Hands? The "poetry" seems imposed from outside. "Zoo" avoids any taint of exploitation, but it errs on the opposite extreme. I came away from it wanting a little less Art and a lot more simple reportage.