Zoo (documentary)

“Zoo” is one of the more interesting failures to come out of the Sundance Film Festival this year. It’s a documentary on a highly unusual topic, and that topic is explored in an unusual way — to the detriment of the film, which would be of more interest if it were more straightforward.

The topic: sex with horses. Specifically, it is the story of a Washington man who died in 2005 as the result of injuries sustained while enjoying some adult time with a stallion. You are forgiven if you assume the film will be taking a less-than-serious, Darwin Awards sort of approach to this. Surely a man being horsed to death calls for levity.

But director Robinson Devor, making his first documentary after a couple of fictional features, has taken a different tack. “Zoo” explores the taboo world of animal lovers and takes a dreamy, ethereal tone. There are artful and evocative re-enactments — no, not of THAT, but of the dead man’s associations with fellow zoophiles and of their non-sexual interactions with horses. Interviews with his friends are conducted in moody lighting while meditative music provides the underscore. This is a SERIOUS movie.

The man himself is not named in the film; he is identified only by his Internet handle, Mr. Hands, out of respect for him and his family. (The man’s name was Kenneth Pinyan, and he was an engineer at Boeing.) He is not a sideshow attraction, you see. That’s what “Zoo” wants us to understand, and to that end, the film spends very little time on the actual events of the night on which Mr. Hands died. The focus instead is on his circle of friends, and what brought them together.

Does the film also want us to accept zoophiles and their animal-sexing ways? It at least wants us to understand them, and the mood of the film is often downright elegiac, as if we are mourning the loss of a way of life. Mr. Hands’ fellow horse-lovers’ deeds were exposed in the aftermath of his death, and their secretive friendship may be broken up. For Devor and his co-writer, a journalist named Charles Mudede, this is a cause for serious reflection on the nature of “taboos” and why sex with animals falls into that category.

Except that the movie doesn’t really discuss anything. It uses images and sounds to create impressions of ideas, leaving any actual, concrete assertions off the table. You will be more enlightened in discussing the film with friends afterward than you will be by the film itself.

Devor’s insistence that Mr. Hands’ death not be a laughing matter means he must treat all the interview subjects seriously, even when their statements beg to be giggled at. A man known only as H decries the shunning he received when his secret life came to light: “We were friends for all these years, and now all of a sudden I’m no good because I love the horse?” I’m sorry, but that’s funny.

Or this, dismissing someone’s lack of equine knowledge: “She doesn’t know her (butt) from a hole in the ground when it comes to a horse.” And you think: You know, if Mr. Hands had been confused about that, he’d be alive today.

I’m sorry, but that’s FUNNY.

It’s laudable that Devor went a different route with his documentary, and it’s beautifully photographed. But I think anyone wanting to see this story on film will be looking for a different kind of examination of it, something more straightforward and nitty-gritty. We don’t need to see Mr. Hands mocked, necessarily, but let’s talk in open, honest terms about what happened and what led to it. “Zoo” is unusually classy, but it’s also ponderous and boring — which is something I didn’t think a movie about a man who died from having sex with a horse could be.

C- (1 hr., 20 min.; Not Rated, probably R for somewhat explicit sexual discussion, some nudity.)