I am inclined to agree with the AV Club that Peter and the Farm is a work of art masquerading as a documentary. This film moved me deeply, and it does the impressive contortion of being both deceptively simple and impenetrably complex at the same time which means it must be art.
On the surface, this film is simple. Peter is a small farmer in Vermont who raises sheep and cows and sells his produce, milk and meat at the local farmers market. He lives on this bucolic, isolated estate where he has to contend with the elements, shoots coyotes, and can summon his flock from a nearby hillside with a pretty badass holler. The camera crew simply documents his life on this farm for about a year. I am sure the initial idea was just to capture what life is like on a smallholder farm.
But Peter is not a simple farmer. He is a depressed alcoholic, a self-destructive and deeply complicated man who both loves and hates life, as we all do when we have the courage to be honest with ourselves. This complicated, tortured inner existence is contrasted with his simple rustic farm life and his consummate skill as a farmer. There are sequences in the film where Peter is just doing the work of farming and appears to get lost in it – something straight out of Tolstoy channelling the transcendent satisfaction of a peasant working the field. Yes, it is monotonous and it is the same every year and at times he expresses ahatred for the circular, eternal nature of his work but this also clearly bumps up against his love for and deep connection with his land and his work. And there, in that paradox which is laid bare in two hours of filmmaking, is the genius of this film. Somehow this little documentary manages to capture the duality and contradictions of the human condition in a grumpy Vermont farmer.
You know there is something different about a film when within the first 10 minutes it shows Peter bring a sheep out of the barn and, very calmly and with the practiced skill of having done this hundreds of times, shoot it in the head with a rifle. He then skins and butchers it with a casual confidence. This is something he has done many times on this farm, and I think it shades his deep understanding and appreciation for the cycle, meaning and interconnectedness of life, as well as for the stark realities of it.
Peter gave these filmmakers pretty much complete access to his life – as a farmer, and as a self-destructive depressive. They film him during benders in which he lashes out angrily and violently, and it is not hard to imagine why his entire family is estranged and why he burns through relationships. He reminds me in many ways of my own New England family. My uncle even bought and still lives on a farm in Pennsylvania. Peter waxes philosophical, sometimes emitting some almost accidental flashes of wisdom behind the veil of self-pity and vitriol. “It’s a fucked up mess but I’m pretty used to it” he says at one point and he could be referring to butchering a sheep or to life as we know it.
In one scene, Peter holds a casual conversation with the filmmakers – who occasionally enter into the narrative and are his actual, real-life friends – about suicide, depression and alcoholism while going about the mundane work of tagging newborn lambs. Outside, the snow softly falls. Many scenes in the film are like this. Just a simple chronicle of the work of running a farm framed against a beautiful natural setting, overlaid with deep ruminations on life and death and happiness and relationships and everything else, all funnelled through Peter who is both charismatic and interesting and good at his job and deeply troubled and addicted to alcohol.
The film is simply a gorgeous, layered and bracingly raw look into the life of a man and somehow – improbably – it manages to in two hours to do justice to the complexity of the task and to faithfully capture all the contradictions and pain and joys of being alive. I don’t want to ascribe too much meaning on this one depressive Vermont farmer – he is not a stand-in for all of humanity. But in telling the unvarnished story of this one single person and his work - Peter and his farm - this film manages to capture so many deeper truths about life and how fucked up and terrible it is while simultaneously being a beautiful thing.