Peter and the Farm: Am I Depressed? Am I Doing Art?, by Craig Schroeder
Peter and the Farm is an unnerving film, forcing its audience to confront the ugliness of mental illness in a way that is often unsettling (an opening sequence showing the unsavory particulars of the titular Peter shooting, bleeding, skinning and butchering a sheep is jarring, announcing that the film will not reduce its difficult subject matter into quaint euphemisms). Peter Dunning is a Vermont farmer who single-handedly operates Mile Hill Farms, a small organic farm that produces beef, pork, lamb, and produce to sell to local stores and farmer’s markets. He’s also an alcoholic, manic depressive with a barn-house filled with abandoned art projects. There’s nothing subtle about Peter’s life; but in presenting Peter without judgment or effulgence, the resulting film is one of the year’s best and it makes significant strides in understanding the mind of someone suffering from mental illness.
Though Peter takes center-stage, Peter and the Farm’s primary subject is the dichotomy between purpose and mental illness. With a premise reminiscent of a TLC or History Channel reality show that follows ordinary folk doing ordinary jobs (albeit with a Hunter S. Thompson avatar as its lead), large swaths of Peter and the Farm are meditative displays of what it takes to operate a viable (in this case, barely viable) commercial farm. But the thrust is Peter’s struggle to find meaning and purpose in his existence. Twice divorced with four children who don’t speak to him (two of which were conceived while Peter and his ex-wife slept outside in a tent to catch the raccoons destroying his crop), Peter is a lonely, depressed alcoholic (he wakes up twice a night to slam down rum to keep the DTs at bay) who is constantly contemplating suicide. He’s also extremely intelligent and charming, dispensing wizened bon mots and philosophical parallels that are often haunting even when nonsensical (“Do you wanna save the world or do you wanna go down?” Peter repeatedly asks one of the filmmakers after a night of drinking).
Despite the film’s distressing nature, it—as well as Peter himself—often finds humor in all of the bedlam, a prescient reminder that those with mental illness aren’t devoid of the shared experiences that make life joyful (in the midst of a drunken, suicidal rage, Peter takes the time to chastise one of the filmmakers for putting a shovel out in the rain: “Don’t put it in the drip…You fucks from Manhattan”). Peter is intensely likable. He’s sixty-eight years old has a thick white beard, a full head of gorgeous salt and pepper hair and a deformed claw for a hand that he can bench press his own body weight with (“There was endless chewing” he says of the saw mill machine that mangled his hand). He’s obstinate but gracious. Brash but humble. He’s fatalistic and pessimistic, even though he’s deeply obsessed with finding purpose in chaos.
Director Tony Stone doesn’t let Peter’s charm attenuate his portrait of mental illness. Peter is self-aware but that doesn’t make his depression any less devastating (“It’s not winter, it’s just the world,” Peter says after one of the filmmaker offers the cold weather as a possible reason for his depressive episode). The film finds hope where it can and sometimes that’s enough. Peter and the Farm is at its best when it’s exploring the most insidious aspects of mental illness and depression. Peter realizes that most of his artistic inspiration (he’s a lifelong painter and sculptor) comes from his depression and alcoholism, quipping “Art is never made when everything is fine. Are you keeping it fucked up so you can keep doing art?” All of Peter’s life has been shaped by his illnesses and he knows it, but his art and his depression have formed a symbiotic relationship that he can’t untangle and the only thing he has to keep him grounded is his routine at Mile Hill Farm. “This farm becomes me; I’ve become the farm”.
Peter and the Farm is a heavy, heavy film. By design, it’s hard to digest. The visceral, gruesome shots of Peter cavalierly slaughtering a lamb is meant to engender disgust, putting the audience in a frame of mind to understand the emotional violence of alcoholism, loneliness and desultory depression. By the end, Peter and the Farm is immensely rewarding as a fascinating personification of all of the emotions that mental illness renders you incapable of personifying.