It takes about ten minutes for Tony Stone’s documentary Peter and the Farm to shatter any sense of calm or tranquility that could be derived from its portrait of Peter Dunning and his gorgeous farm in Vermont. After showing his sheep running around the property, Dunning butchers one in front of the camera, shooting it in the head (twice, since the first shot didn’t work so well) and removing its organs in front of the camera. It’s a tough sequence to watch, but its purpose is clear; this is part of Dunning’s job, and it serves as a preview of the messiness and brutality lurking within the farm’s serene environment.
Stone follows Dunning over the course of a year, opening his film around summertime when things seem to operate at a modest pace. Dunning opens up about his past, revealing a complicated history growing up as an orphan, joining the marines, becoming a part of the counterculture and then committing himself to farming for the past three decades. He’s a fascinating figure, one whose friendly demeanor contains a caustic edge that invites a sort of distanced curiosity, and it doesn’t take long for Dunning to start delving into troubled or regretful moments from his past. An uglier side eventually comes out, and the film’s second half shows a man plagued by alcoholism, depression, and loss, working in solitude with the knowledge that he’ll keep toiling away at his farm until he dies.
The specificity of Stone’s subject, along with the (somewhat) vérité format, both help and hurt the film in a way, creating a ceiling that prevents the documentary from evolving to anything more than a glimpse at a charismatic and troubled person. There’s much to admire, whether it’s the striking imagery or the way Stone handles the involvement of himself and his crew in Dunning’s life (Stone embraces the tricky ethics of profiling such an unstable person and doesn’t bother hiding it), but there isn’t too much to take away from the film once it ends, making it amount to little more than a mildly intriguing slice of life. Much like Dunning at the end of Stone’s yearlong journey, we emerge from Peter and the Farm looking no worse for wear, ready to move on and deal with whatever comes next.