'Stray Dog': Film Review

A fine documentary about war wounds that never heal and a nation diminished.

"Winter's Bone" director Debra Granik returns with a candid documentary about a chopper-riding Vietnam War vet Ron "Stray Dog" Hall.

After making southern Missouri look like one of the scariest spots in the United States in Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik looks at the place from quite a different angle in Stray Dog, a candid, emotional documentary about a chopper-riding Vietnam War vet that is revealing and disturbing in multiple ways. The clear-eyed film dedicates itself to breaking through the debris of cliched, one-dimensional public impressions of vets, bikers, immigrant wives and kids and trailer-park lifestyles as it fashions an involving portrait of a deeply scarred man sustained by certain rituals and an unextinguished sense of empathy for others’s problems. Despite its overriding sense of sadness, this winner of the documentary competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival has a good shot at thriving wherever documentaries are welcome due to its potential appeal to widely divergent audience groups.

Granik met the bearded, tough-skinned, big-gutted Ron “Stray Dog” Hall while casting Winter’s Bone in Branson, Mo., and gave him the role of Thump Milton; he brought along some of his biker friends to help fill out certain scenes. The more she observed him, the more she became intrigued by the man’s struggles to cope with his demons as well as his compulsion to help others, to the point where she felt there might be a film in his life’s journey as it seemed headed for a turning point.

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“I walked around pissed off for a whole lot of years,” Stray Dog confesses at the outset. For a long time, the 60-something poster child for the Harley-Davidson lifestyle lived alone with a few hounds in a trailer home while squeaking through by renting out spaces for other such dwellings, mostly to other older folks in a rural area not far from a highway.

Now, however, he’s studying Spanish so he can communicate better with his new Mexican wife, Alicia, an upbeat religious woman who has injected newfound vitality and steadiness into his life. She’s got twin boys in their late teens in Mexico, but it will take some doing to enable them to legally join their madre north of the border.

It doesn’t take long to see that the determining event in Stray Dog’s life was Vietnam. A veteran of two tours of the duty, the first an emotionally uneventful one as an engineer but the second one in combat with the 4th Infantry Division during which time some very bad stuff obviously went down, Stray Dog is still haunted by actions in which he participated there, things for which he refuses to forgive himself because he believes this would dishonor those he hurt and/or killed.

“It was all so unnecessary,” he says of the war. At the same time, however, he is an active participant in elaborate local ceremonies held to honor the dead, some of them former colleagues. He tears up easily, and the major event of his year is to take part in the “Run for the Wall,” the organized trip that thousands of vets, mostly on motorcycles, make to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. This year, he takes Alicia. You’d think he’d know better after all this time, but this very white old dog neglects to use sunscreen, resulting in a horrible sunburn.

While not madly charismatic, Stray Dog is nonetheless the sort of guy to whom people are drawn, in no small measure because he takes a genuine interest in them. He helps old-timers through their medical problems, shares his stash of Viagra with pals and becomes something of an expert on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among fellow vets. He also offers some blunt talk to his granddaughters, who could use it, especially an obese no-hoper who’s just gotten pregnant by a boyfriend who works at McDonald’s and hasn’t given a thought to planning her life. Stray Dog sees all-too-clearly the dire path to which she’s now fated but isn’t in a position to change it.

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After an hour or so, when you feel you might have seen about enough of solemn military ceremonies, biker paraphernalia and the threadbare trailer park existence, the film strikes a new and deeply sorrowful note with the arrival of Alicia’s sons Jesus and Angel. Handsome, smartly dressed and exceedingly well mannered in an old-school way, the boys are naturally excited to join their mother the U.S.

Almost at once, however, their disappointment in their new surroundings is impossible to conceal. They’re too polite to say anything about it, but the tiny trailer Stray Dog has them stay in isn’t at all what they had in mind when they came north. Accustomed to having shops and internet cafes nearby in Mexico City, they feel stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no opportunity to meet anyone their own age and nothing mentioned in the way of further schooling or jobs. Stray Dog tries to buck them up by teaching them how to ride a chopper and shoot a rifle and telling them things will get better after a few months, but then it will be winter and undoubtedly worse.

It couldn’t have been planned this way, but the film quietly shifts its attention from Stray Dog to these boys, to very depressing effect. Stray Dog had his life permanently thrown off course by Vietnam and at one point says that today he prefers Mexico to the United States because the friendliness of the people there reminds him of how it was in the U.S. 50 years ago. America in theory represents hope to people coming up from the South, but what Jesus and Angel find is a place parched, ragged and unable to deliver on its promise. One would like to find out that they went back home.

It’s a sad, telling film.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (documentary competition)
Production: Still Rolling Productions
Director: Debra Granik
Producer: Anne Rosellini
Executive producer: Johnathan Scheuer
Director of photography: Eric Phillips-Horst
Editor: Victoria Stewart
105 minutes