The innocuous title is a bit misleading. Tony Stone's documentary "Peter and the Farm" is less an educational peek into the life of the American farmer than a darkly existential character study about a broken man coming to grips with his own mortality and the legacy he leaves behind.
Peter Dunning is the sole owner and operator of Mile Hill Farm, which occupies 187 pastoral acres in Vermont. Dunning has spent 35 years tending to his flocks of sheep and a herd of cattle which appear to be his only companions in the isolated countryside (even if he sometimes refers to the animals as prisoners). But he's built up a lifetime of regrets, and the 68-year-old ex-marine is burdened with a sense of self-loathing that appears even more meticulously cultivated than the land he's worked for all those decades.
Over the course of a year, Stone follows his subject, allowing Dunning to hold court as he carries on about his daily routine, and through his rambling monologues we gradually learn the tragic details of his life: his abandoned ambitions of becoming an artist, two failed marriages, and four estranged children. An accident with a sawmill back when Dunning was 26 left his left arm mangled, and he struggles with alcoholism and depression. At several points during the film, he talks of killing himself, but thankfully the film never takes the dark turn that constantly seems to be on the horizon.
It's fairly dark stuff, but Dunning has a grizzled charisma -- which is fortunate since the film might be unbearable to watch without his wry sense of humor to carry us along. Despite his grim mental state, the effort and skill that the work requires is always evident. Stone's camera never turns away from the brutal realities of Dunning's profession (the graphic slaughter of a sheep early on is not for the faint of heart), but it also allows us to take in the natural loveliness of the surrounding landscape. The contrast between the grotesque and the exquisite brings its own kind of beauty, one that's reflected and echoed in the life of the often confounding man at the center of it all.