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MOVIE REVIEW

A death in the stables, a meditation on desire

Robinson Devor's documentary looks at the unknowable nature of attraction without diving into sensationalist details.

"Zoo" is a documentary about a thing that actually happened, but it's not a typical documentary. The "thing" -- a man's death after intercourse with an Arabian stallion -- is left willfully vague. And the movie isn't interested in sensationalism; instead it wants to explore the bond between a community of men drawn to each other over a shared desire to have sex with animals.

The men call themselves "zoo," the way you'd use "straight," "gay," or "bi" to describe your sexual orientation, and director Robinson Devor gingerly, yet eerily, reenacts the fraternal evening pot lucks these men would have at someone's house that occasionally culminated in a trip to the stables.

The closest you come to seeing the sex is a fleeting image on a television set. But through evocative dramatizations and elliptical montage, Devor conjures the atmosphere in which such a potentially fatal attraction could flourish. From the first bewitching shot in which the camera pulls us toward a tiny light (it's a miner's wagon emerging from a shaft), "Zoo" assumes a canted, yet respectful position on what happens between the men and the horses. The ambiguity reflects the unknowable nature of the attraction.

Devor is Seattle-based, and he's earned a strong reputation on the film- festival circuit. His comedy "The Woman Chaser " is a masterpiece of wryness. And his later "Police Beat " is a hard-to-categorize movie about race, class, and nationality.

In "Zoo," his first documentary feature, he's working in a style similar to one perfected by Errol Morris . Bestiality isn't illegal in Washington state, where the incident occurred, but the subsequent tabloid-style frenzy exposed the men involved to unwanted scrutiny. Devor managed to interview several of them, and one, nicknamed Coyote, even plays himself on screen. So does Jenny Edwards, who adopts one of the violated horses. She explains what's so comforting about the animals, while we see her and a man lying in a field at dusk, surrounded by grazing horses. Otherwise, the movie features clips of the audio interviews which play over the reenactments, lyrically shot by cinematographer Sean Kirby.

These are formal choices that raise questions of propriety. Why should a filmmaker consort so intimately with such problematic subjects? Why would the subjects consent to doing it?

"Zoo" is a cinematic exercise before it's anything else. It doesn't have an overt thematic point. It isn't out for justice. Devor is probably too close to strike a crisp journalistic balance, anyway.

He turns the perspective over almost completely to his participants, some of whom justify their abuses with deluded conjecture. "They don't care whether it's a filly underneath them or a human," one says of the stallions, who can't speak for themselves.

Devor's sympathy for both the men and the animals is humane, yet his movie is palpably sad. A sense of shame cuts through all the ambiguity. You know less about what you've watched when "Zoo" is over than you did when it started. And that's what makes the movie so hard to shake.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae /movies/blog.

'Related'

Zoo

Written and directed by: Robinson Devor

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 72 minutes

Unrated (glimpses of bestiality)

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