“It’s a fucked up mess, but I’m pretty used to it.” Peter Dunning is talking about the mangled hand that he nearly lost in a sawmill accident during his twenties, but he might as well be talking about his life.
A grizzled 68-year-old alcoholic who lives on a patchy piece of land in the earthy interior of Vermont with a flock of sheep, some bales of hay, and several decades worth of festering regrets, Dunning is constantly weighing the value of this mortal coil against the oblivion that waits for him on the other side. He’s a man pulled between primordial rage and cosmic acceptance, the sort of modern-day Hemingway character you might find at your local farmer’s market. Sometimes he’s at peace — at others, he asks a farmhand to hide his rifle so he doesn’t kill himself. In other words, Dunning is in dire need of some perspective. Perhaps Tony Stone’s raw and riveting documentary about him will do the trick.
A wooly howl of a film, “Peter and the Farm” is the rare contemporary doc that allows itself to surrender to its subject. Stone (“Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America”) clearly has some kind of friendship with Dunning, but he doesn’t force the volatile loner to fit the mold of a predetermined narrative or express a degree of uncharacteristic warmth that might make him more accessible to the audience. In fact, Stone hardly even bothers to justify why he’s making a movie about the guy in the first place — he mumbles through more than 20 minutes of vérité farming footage (much of it grim and extremely graphic) before the darkness creeps in and we begin to appreciate that Dunning’s relationship to the land is a lot more complicated than it appears.
This isn’t one of those gentle looks at hinterland living, nor is it a Sensory Ethnography Lab study of an agricultural system in motion. On the contrary, it’s a wooly meditation on mortality, a movie about a man who sees his farm as an extension of his body and a reflection of his soul. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my shit, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair,” Dunning barks into the camera. “I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm.”
In part, that’s because the farm is all that he has left. Once, Dunning was a painting major with ambitions of becoming a sculptor. Now, four children, three wives, and a wasted inheritance later, it’s just him and a canvas of dirt and meat and animal crap. He’s gotten use to the isolation, naming his bales of hay and regaling his empty kitchen with unsolicited monologues about that time he led his fellow marines on a wasted “West Side Story” singalong across the bars of Waikiki.
Despite his occasional delirium, Dunning is painfully self-aware for a drunk who needs to guzzle rum in the middle of the night in order to stave off the DTs. The more he caterwauls into the void, screaming at chickens like a crunchy King Lear, the more comfortable he seems asking for help. He asked Stone to document his suicide, but — over time — it begins to seem as though he wanted the filmmaker there in order to make sure that he didn’t go through with it.
Perhaps inevitably, that dynamic occasionally flirts with exploitation. Stone is understandably compelled by the moments in which Dunning is spitting and belligerent, but these scenes stand in such stark contrast to the serene naturalism of his other footage that it can feel as though the filmmaker was waiting around for his friend to fly off the handle. “Peter and the Farm” is presented in rough chronological order, and — at one one point towards the end of the shoot — Dunning is dismayed to see the camera; he thinks Stone is done filming and has just dropped by to hang out.
On the other hand, maybe Stone is simply heeding some of his subject’s well-tested advice: “Art is never made when everything is fine.” Or maybe he’s just trying to make sure that Dunning is able to hear himself make sense of why he’s tended to the farm, and how the farm has tended to him in return. “I don’t know why death is always the same,” Dunning mutters, “but it always is. Life is much more impressive.” This intimate, unvarnished, and occasionally transcendent micro-portrait may seldom leave Dunning’s property, but it takes stock of the whole world.
“Peter and the Farm” is now in theaters and on VOD.