“This farm becomes me, I’ve become the farm.”
Bathed in an always fading, autumnal light, like an Andrew Wyeth painting brought to life, Tony Stone’s Peter and the Farm hooks you from the get-go. From its visuals alone, Stone’s documentary is rich in splendor, even when capturing cold, dirty things. There’s an ominous air that hangs over it all, reminding one of recent horror film The Witch, where darkness was lurking at the edge of the land. There’s a darkness lurking in Peter and the Farm as well, and while it never goes into full-on horror, it borders on being a horror film of its own. But the horrors are internal rather than external; the type of inner-turmoil that whittles your heart and soul down into jagged bits.
The subject of the doc is Peter Dunning, a Vermont farmer with a past he can’t get away from. Dunning operates his farmland alone, and as he talks to Stone’s camera one gets the sense that the farmer has a lot of experience just talking to himself. The lonely are experts at holding such conversations. And Dunning is alone in ways some of us can’t even dream of. With his thick beard and almost-playful voice, Dunning strikes an imposing yet welcoming figure. A Peter and the Farm unfolds, we learn about the materials that make the man. The history that hangs over him, casting a shadow, like a vulture riding deadly currents overhead.
Dunning wanted to be a sculptor, but an accident mangled his hand and that dream along with it. But he still has the soul of a poet, and the drinking habit to back it up. Stone’s film devotes plenty of time to telling Peter’s story, but don’t go looking for some sort of main conflict or obstacle to overcome. This is not a film about Peter learning to quit drinking, or fighting to save his farm. This is just a film about Peter, and his unique, quiet and unquiet existence. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but Dunning makes for such a fascinating subject, and Stone’s direction of the rustic, sunset scenery around him provides a breathtaking canvas to watch it all on.
To be clear, it’s not all dire. Despite Dunning’s troubles, he has a wit and humor about him that lightens the mood considerably. But that darkness is always there, lurking, waiting to descend like pockets of shadows cast by the clouded-over, setting sun.