GRIM REAPER Tony Stone’s latest is a character study of a troubled Vermont homesteader who looks back on his life with a mixture of dark humor and deep regret.
This most unusual movie opens with a drive down a road in Springfield, Vt. The frame is filled with majestic mountains and foliage fit for a postcard. It could be footage for a tourism department TV spot — only our destination isn't some visitor-friendly paradise but one man's private hell. Welcome to Mile Hill Farm.
Its owner is the subject of this award-winning documentary from director Tony Stone (Severed Ways). From the moment we arrive on the 187-acre property, Peter Dunning addresses the camera. Over the course of one year — which Maxwell Paparella has masterfully edited into 92 often-mesmerizing minutes — the farmer tells his story.
In this chapter of his life, the organic farm is virtually a one-man operation. Dunning proves to be anything but a traditional talking head. Stone and his crew scramble to keep up with the 68-year-old as he performs an endless cycle of demanding duties and chores.
We pick up bits and pieces of Dunning's autobiography between scenes of him slaughtering a lamb, slopping hogs, reaching deep into a cow to facilitate a birth, plowing, planting, repairing machines. "I care more about the farm than me," he states. As the facts of his life are revealed, the sentiment takes on dark ramifications.
Why is the farm a one-man operation? Where is everybody? Dunning bought the place in 1978, when he was 33. A painting major who minored in sculpture, he had a wife and the romantic notion that they'd farm half the year and make art the other half. They had children, and the dream seemed within reach. Then a grisly power-saw accident nearly severed Dunning's hand. He was left with a gnarled paw and the realization that his days as an artist were over. His days as an angry alcoholic, though, were only beginning. Over time, his behavior drove his family away.
Dunning is not your father's farmer. A fair poet and something of a philosopher, he's fascinating company — even when, in the dead of winter, he confesses to getting up twice a night to chug rum to keep the DTs at bay. When an off-camera voice suggests rehab, Dunning replies that it's either that "or hanging from the bathroom door ... I'm living in hell."
By the end of the movie, however, Dunning has succumbed to neither of those fates. The viewer is left with questions about how the filmmaker found this singular subject, how much of what we see is at least in part a performance, and what's become of Dunning since shooting wrapped. As far as I know, this is the only review to provide answers.
Research turned up a Q&A with Stone taped last April, following a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. We learn that Stone has known Peter since the former was 9 (his parents discussed art with Dunning at the Brattleboro Farmers Market). In fact, Dunning acted in Stone's 2009 movie Out of Our Minds. "He's a performer," Stone says with a smile. The most unexpected revelation: Stone didn't propose making the documentary to Peter. Peter proposed it to him. He pitched him on documenting his suicide. "Friends say he's always cried wolf," Stone admits.
For the tale of a tortured soul, the film has a surprisingly happy real-life ending. Dunning has gone from bit player to star of an acclaimed motion picture. In an even less likely twist of fate, the man who once dreamed of being an artist has made it to MOMA after all. He attended the tony showing at the prestigious venue.
Don't cry for Peter Dunning. The fact is, he hasn't been this happy in decades. Not much chance of him buying the farm.