It is appropriate to give farmer Peter Dunning top billing over the place where he makes his earthly living: the Mile Hill Farm in Springfield, Vt. Although the almost inexplicably engrossing documentary “Peter and the Farm” features such bluntly unpleasant images as a lingering close-up of a cow defecating, the things that come out of Dunning’s mouth, over the course of 91 minutes, are far more fascinating.
He is not just a husbandman of organically raised animals and crops — he has, he says, affection for animals, for place, for “everything” — but a tragic, muck-stained poet as well. Dunning is quick to render such uncommon insights as this, forged out of the regret he says he now feels over two ex-wives and four estranged children: “I wish the affection for people had been received as I didn’t give it, but meant it.”
As the 68-year-old Dunning goes about his chores, he is filmed by director Tony Stone and his assistant director Dylan Kraus — the latter of whom we watch as he helps Dunning saw firewood (and subsequently gets yelled at for driving the wrong way, after chauffeuring Dunning to a drinking spree in town).
Yes, Dunning is, by his own admission, a struggling alcoholic — and occasionally suicidal — but he is also, at times, very funny, not to mention heartbreakingly relatable. The white-bearded hippie-farmer’s unvarnished observations about the vicissitudes of life, including a youthful accident that mangled his hand and destroyed his fledgling career as a visual artist, are delivered with the same no-nonsense attitude with which Dunning approaches, say, slaughtering lambs, whose meat he sells at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market. “Peter and the Farm” is not for the squeamish, nor for those who would rather not know, in too much explicit detail, where their dinner comes from.
The movie makes little effort to render any grand statements, despite Stone’s assertion, when asked by Dunning about the film’s goals, that his focus is on the intersection of — and tension between — “culture and agriculture.” And yet by looking closely, clinically and ultimately compassionately at one eccentric practitioner of a dying way of life — one whose bitterness is tempered by a sense of hard-won acceptance that is less Buddha-like than battered — “Peter and the Farm” nevertheless manages to harvest not just understanding of one peculiar, broken little man, but a broader wisdom about the cycle of seasons that we all must endure on this planet.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains coarse language and occasionally graphic scenes of birth, life and death on a farm. 91 minutes.