If the success of a character study can be measured purely by the extent to which the character him-/herself draws one’s attention, then the new documentary Peter and the Farm is surely one of the most successful of recent years. On the surface, beyond his long white beard, there isn’t anything extraordinarily distinctive about Peter Dunning, a solitary farmer who has devoted 35 years of his life to tending his farm in Vermont, and whose lonely existence masks deep psychological scars underneath. Even his traumas are fairly mundane: estrangement from his ex-wives and kids, curdled hippie idealism, a hand accident that ended his artistic dreams. And yet, once you hear Peter speak in his dramatically galvanizing voice, one can’t help but sit up and pay attention to whatever cantankerous, world-weary, brutally candid statements he utters.
And boy, does he have many such words to impart to co-cinematographer/co-producer/director Tony Stone and his crew in this film. “I’m living in hell,” he says at one point, “hell” referring to his farm, whose gorgeously pastoral qualities sharply belie his characterization. In another scene, he jokes to the filmmakers about how the film ought to be about capturing his own suicide. He still exudes seething resentment toward his former wives and children, all of the latter of whom, he claims, would never answer his phone calls. As for the farm he so carefully tends, Peter says that 1998 was its last great year, and that his farm has been in decline ever since. Such personal revelations occur in seemingly haphazard ways throughout Peter and the Farm. Instead of conceiving of a carefully structured biographical arc, Stone has edited his film in a way that feels like the camera dropping in on Peter as his memories sprout organically through his behavior.
Peter’s reminiscences alternate between long stretches where Stone and co-cinematographer Nathan Corbin simply observe the man in action: tending to his sheep, cows and pigs; gutting and disemboweling some of them in order to cut them up for meat; keeping tabs on all of his animals through charts he maintains on his clipboard. Stone doesn’t shy away from showing us the grime Peter has to wade through every day—we even get to see a cow defecating in a medium shot, for instance—and no doubt some audience members will choose to witness these sections through partially covered eyes, if at all. More pertinent to the film, however, is the manner with which Peter carries out such filthy business, the methodical nature of his movements suggesting how routine they’ve become for him. Even now, though, and despite his complaints about the state of his life at the moment, he still occasional betrays a certain pleasure in his work. “I’ve become the farm,” Peter comments in one scene; he may say that with a certain measure of regret, but for better or worse, his farm is the only thing that keeps him going.
Nevertheless, it’s Peter’s introspective despair that leaves the most lasting mark on us in Peter and the Farm. It’s an impression that Stone bolsters with small touches in his filmmaking, occasionally going beyond its closely observant roving-camera aesthetic to try to suggest the man’s inner life. Mostly, this takes the form of a sound design that verges on outright distortion at its loudest—as if aurally buttressing the prickliness of the subject himself. Music also plays a keenly psychological role in brief, isolated moments. Stone’s use of hard-driving punk rock on the soundtrack offers as stark a contrast to the idyllic exterior landscapes as Peter’s own drunken self-pitying ramblings.
Is it merely self-pity, though, or is Peter, through his own troubled life, touching on something universal: the disillusionment of a man who has endured dashed dreams and is currently living in something of a soulless state? Your response to Peter and the Farm—whether you find Stone’s film to be an unedifying wallow in one man’s depression, or a profound meditation on existential human needs—will surely hinge on that question. However you take Peter Dunning, though, there is something admirable to the way Tony Stone and co. view their subject with a fascination that’s filled with clear-eyed empathy. It’s the kind of unsentimental compassion that animates the best art.
Director: Tony Stone
Starring: Peter Dunning
Release Date: Nov. 4, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.