The titular subject of Peter and the Farm is an alcoholic who believes in the 18-step program: descending the nine stairs down to his basement to get some moonshine and then climbing back up. He predicts that he’ll die by bashing his head on the stairwell’s low overhang while blindingly drunk. He imagines that it will take some time for someone to find him.
For a 68-year-old man who talks about death a lot, organic farmer Peter Dunning is fairly jolly and charismatic. He unleashes a battery of expletives as he casually mentions, say, his time in jail or the wife who left him as he shows director Tony Stone and assistant director Dylan Kraus (who appears briefly in the film) the often unpleasant inner workings of his Vermont farm. And the directors don’t shy away: The camera lingers on the bloody head of a freshly killed sheep, for instance, and stays throughout as Dunning slits its throat, scalps it, cuts off its head, and finally disembowels the animal.
Dunning also demonstrates the mundane and sometimes fun aspects of his daily life, from tilling the soil to his ability to call his sheep or command his dog to chase some rogue birds back to the henhouse. He curiously points out the spots where his son and daughter were conceived. (Which he’d felt compelled to show them, too.) Dunning’s not the only one making somewhat odd choices: After a vet confirms that a cow is pregnant, Stone opts to follow-up with a tight shot of a different cow emptying its bowels.
Throughout, Dunning philosophizes about when the farm was at its peak with his family helping him (he’s had two wives and four children leave him), about how it’s “sick” that humans navel-gaze instead of considering their place on a planet full of “billions of organisms that are billions of years old,” and about his adoption after his mother died. (He calls the home of his adoptive parents “a little shitty shitbox fucking house.”)
But what makes Peter and the Farm particularly engrossing is Dunning’s talk of his depression and art. He has a degree—a major in painting and minor in sculpture—but chose a life of agriculture in order to “save the world.” As he shows some of his work, Dunning remarks, “Art is never made when everything is fine.” Throughout the film, we see glimpses of a self-loathing man who not only writes suicide notes, he suggests that his self-inflicted death be made part of the documentary’s narrative. Indeed, he knows his minuscule place in the world, at one point screaming about the insignificance of his suicide at the surely uncomfortable, but supportive crew, “What does it matter?” In the next scene, he’s admiring the beauty of a bare tree in a snowy field.
Although you must take the Hawthorne effect into account, Dunning’s chattiness is typical of the isolated and his mood swings are textbook depression. At one point he says that he trusts the directors; at another, he’s berating Kraus, who surprisingly is shown chiming in that Dunning is critical of anyone who asks for help. (Kraus, who was driving around a drunken Dunning, hadn’t asked him for directions.)
You can’t imagine a documentarian being any more intimate with his subject, nor a subject who’s more open. The arc of Dunning’s life is tragically movielike: He managed to build what he still refers to as “paradise,” but now that paradise has become a burden that a broken man can’t keep up on his own. His stories often hint at regret, and he wishes to be buried in the soil, where he might finally be at rest. Dunning’s cry for help, now captured on film, couldn’t be any louder. When someone off-camera inaudibly asks if he suffers from seasonal affective disorder, the response is no. “I don’t think it’s winter anymore,” Dunning says. “I think it’s the weight of the world.”
Peter and the Farm opens Friday at West End Cinema.