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Review: Documentary ‘Peter and the Farm’ gives an existential tilt to man and nature

‘Peter and the Farm’
Peter Dunning in the documentary “Peter and the Farm.”
(Magnolia Pictures)

Tony Stone’s gripping documentary “Peter and the Farm” has a title suggestive of a fable full of moos and oinks, when the vision is instead one of pastoral agony, and the sounds are of an old man bleating against the universe.

Crusty iconoclast Peter Dunning, a Santa-bearded ex-Marine and child of the counterculture, has a picturesque acreage of sheep, cows and pigs in Vermont that he’s been running for 35 years. But as a soured idealist with busted marriages, estranged children and failed artistic ambitions as a painter and poet, he clearly feels as trapped as the animals he slaughters for profit.

Captured over a year of seasonal changes and swinging moods, Peter is one of the more turbulent doc subjects you’re likely to encounter — heavy drinking and talk of suicide swirl uneasily amid more caustically funny and garrulous moments — and yet the bracingly beautiful scenery seems like an ever-replenishing balm for this despairing soul.

At times, the movie feels queasily like a stakeout for something terrible — and if you’re squeamish about the realities of raising animals for meat, be warned. But as character studies go, it has a peculiar pull as a reflective one-man show. “Peter and the Farm” is ultimately a portrait of whatever the opposite of “getting back to nature” is: the cycle of the land as a circle of hell.

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‘Peter and the Farm’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

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Playing: Lammle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; and VOD

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