There are, no doubt, a lot of men in America just like Peter Dunning, the star of the new documentary Peter and the Farm. They dig themselves foxholes, hoping they will be able to escape much of the messy business of living in the world, but then they get in so deep they can’t get out. In Peter’s case, the foxhole is a farm in Vermont that looks, to be honest, pretty nice. It has pastures that roll away from the barn and a pond lined with daffodils in spring. The documentary follows him through the course of a year, so we see that things get a bit rougher in the winter when everything is grey and brown. But Peter both loves and hates it there. Anger and loneliness have set in.
Until now, Hollywood has given us a lot of movies about male aggression. Think, for instance, of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, in which an angry, bespectacled Michael Douglas wreaks a path of destruction because he has been laid off and his wife has left him. Another version can be found in books like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. The alienated man lashing out at society is a trope that popular culture loves to explore. It is amply backed up by America’s curiosity about what might make someone into a Ted Kaczynski, or a Columbine killer, or a Dylann Roof. Usually such movies have some sympathy for the place their characters find themselves in, some connection to their alienation. The problem, we’re told, is mass culture. Or the gradual deracination of masculinity in a post-feminist country. That truth is treated as self-evident: Michael Douglas is, after all, a man on the edge.
Peter and the Farm works harder than most films to get at the truth of what has happened to its anti-hero. People like Peter do sometimes become Ted Kaczynski, a man Peter himself references with neither admiration nor condemnation, and direct their aggression outward. But more often, they become Peter, a person so deep inside his own self-hate that he exudes his own kind of charisma. Although we are told Peter has been abandoned by his two ex-wives and four children, he is not particularly mournful about his inability to keep a family together. He is an alcoholic who seems unlikely to hurt anyone but who talks frequently of suicide. He offers little to no explanation for why he has become what others might call “A Difficult Person.” Instead he performs a kind of very slow self-immolation in this film, only the tiniest of flames lapping at his feet, growing imperceptibly as the movie chugs along.
To be fair, one thing that Peter shares with men-on-the-edge is deep, abiding frustration. In every single way Peter’s ambitions have been thwarted. He once wanted to be a painter, had an idea that by moving to Vermont he’d be allowed to dedicate himself half the year to art. The other half, he thought, he’d spend making money, and took a job in a sawmill. Then there was an accident with a band saw, which left him with mangled hand. It can grip things, but the loss of the full use of a hand clearly put an end to many of Peter’s hopes.
“Everything had a meaning and everything had a purpose,” Peter says to the documentarians. “And that’s what’s getting lost now. Without enough animals, meaning and purpose is all fucked up.” He is plainly referring to the general condition of society rather than his own particular condition. But it is not a triumphant statement. Peter, for example, often describes his own sheep as prisoners. And even so, the sheep tend to wrangle Peter instead of the other way around. At one point, in the midst of tagging some, he falls helplessly backwards into the muck, declaring loudly that “I hate sheep.” People who have had prior experience with sheep may feel pangs of sympathy, but it’s clear he is deriving little sense of meaning and purpose from those particular animals.
Peter’s charm is, of course, a gendered thing. A woman, living alone as Peter does, angry and depressed as he is, is unlikely to seem quite so intriguing to a filmmaker. She would be a ruin, and not, like Peter, the ruin of a monument for something America used to want to believe about its men. Peter benefits from the fact that hard living often seems to make isolated, unhappy old men more attractive, the lines in their face read as evidence that they have felt things very deeply all their lives. When they have tantrums, the modifier typically applied is “anguished,” rather than “hysterical.”
And Peter is certainly very anguished. “What does it matter?” Peter begins yelling at the filmmaker towards the end of the documentary, the “it” being his life. That the documentary can’t totally answer this question is its biggest achievement. Another sort of film would position Peter as at least nominally heroic, ending with him looking peacefully over his land at the end of a summer workday. The documentary is not so sure about this. Its attitude towards him is something more like Henry David Thoreau’s attitude toward the people of Concord in the nineteenth century: “The inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.”
Where others might be awed by beauty, Peter sees only disappointment. One golden evening they’re all sitting outside, near the pond, and you can hear warbling in the distance. Peter asks the film crew what they think that is. “A beautiful songbird,” one of the producers replies offscreen, and Peter makes a sound midway between a laugh and a snort. “It’s a toad,” he says. It’s a nice metaphor for what the filmmaker clearly wants to convey about the farm, that it’s both a fantasy land and a trap. And that the failure of someone like Peter, someone who has worked all his life without feeling he has anything to show for it, is that he very much knows exactly what he’s sacrificed to keep it going. That is the edge that Peter has on the man-on-the-edge: At least he seems to know that he’s the one who built all the fences that keeps him enclosed in his own rage.