Early in Tony Stone’s Peter and the Farm, the titular Vermont farmer Peter Dunning shoots a sheep in the head. The wound isn’t fatal, so Dunning fires again, and then uses his John Deere tractor to lift the animal’s carcass in the air. He slits its throat, feeds its blood to some eager pigs, and then returns to saw off the sheep’s head. The animal is stripped of its fur, and then its entrails, organs, and guts. Reduced to meat and bones, the sheep is left to hang in a barn. Throughout the procedure, Dunning barely utters a word.
This quiet, systematic violence is uncharacteristic of Peter and the Farm’s content, but emblematic of its method. Process is a backdrop throughout, and Dunning turns out to be more than eager to regale the filmmakers. He’s preternaturally equipped with vulgar koans about the comedy, horror, and holistic satisfaction of farmwork amid the solitude and rolling hills of central Vermont. At 68, he’s spent just over half of his life running Springfield’s Mile Hill Farm, and that milestone seems to have prompted him to a fatalistic frame of mind. As the film progresses, Dunning’s reflections become as visceral and discomfiting as his butchering of the aforementioned sheep.
Dunning’s story is one of trauma, rebellion, and romantic ideals that have curdled throughout his years in isolation. Orphaned as a child, he became a marine, then worked as an artist before becoming inspired by the back-to-the-land ethos of 1960s counterculture. He’s continued to produce paintings and poems since becoming an organic farmer, but from the beginning of Peter and the Farm it’s clear that Dunning’s relationship with his work and property has become a lonely form of co-dependency, prevailing long after ties with an ex-wife and two children were broken. (His son is one of many people and animals Dunning claims to “fucking hate.”) These days, in the regional newspaper’s op-ed pages, Dunning rails against a local invasion of coyotes the way self-styled militias inveigh against immigration. Empty cases of beer and cider line his barn, foreshadowing a struggle with alcoholism that will come to consume both Dunning and the film.
Peter and the Farm spans the course of a year, beginning and ending in autumn, and Stone is attuned to the cyclical nature of both Dunning’s work and his addiction. Exterior scenes are resplendent with signs of seasonal changes, but the sky is always an indistinct gray, like a dome looming over Dunning’s kingdom. Some unnecessarily blunt techniques (a shot that abstracts a crescent moon and puts it back together again, a wanly discordant ambient/post-rock soundtrack) lean hard on the farmer’s fractured persona, and threaten to undermine his alternately rehearsed and impetuous presentation of his own decay. Elsewhere, the film is distinguished by its patience. A few gorgeous shots circle objects or animals and then pan left or right, establishing the space of Mile Hill Farm and the beasts that keep Dunning company. His voluble commentary unfurls at length, pivoting from bombast to startling intimacy. Though Dunning has a flair for drama, Stone’s presentation of him never feels anything less than emotionally direct.
The bracing tension of Peter and the Farm results from his competing natures: Dunning is eager to portray himself as an icon of rugged individualism, but just as quick to lapse into rueful musings on depression and loneliness. Recalling his military days, Dunning breaks into song as he outlines a scene where he corralled fellow marines into recreating a number from West Side Story on the streets of Waikiki. “I was the choreographer, I was the director,” he says. Not long after, he’s passed out in the back of a truck, unloading on Stone and his assistant director for getting lost on the way to a liquor store. At one point, Dunning suggests the film become a document of his suicide.
Such moments of transparency (Stone can be heard wondering how he’ll edit his own voice out of the film) serve to de-romanticize Dunning’s words, making his vulnerability more acute. Peter and the Farm is a warts-and-all portrait that asserts its subject’s sense of purpose even as it seems to slip out of his grasp. The film begins and ends with Dunning explaining that he can relate an anecdote in one of two ways, and its keen insight stems from Stone’s willingness to allow Dunning to scrutinize his solitary kingdom from concurrent angles of pride, humor, desolation, and deep regret.