When “Winter’s Bone” writer and director Debra Granik ventured to Missouri to make the film, she returned with more than she expected — the subject of her next film, in the form of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a biker and Vietnam vet with a heart of gold and a head full of nightmares. Granik brings an un-showy, observational documentary style to this intimate look at Stray Dog’s life, navigating his trusty Harley along Missouri’s open road, with his new Mexican wife, Alicia, riding on the back of the bike.
“Stray Dog” is the story of cultures meeting, clashing, melding together, and being preserved. Ron has long been a part of the Missouri biker culture, with all the leather vests, line dancing, and moonshine that it entails. As the owner of the At Ease RV Park, he’s a central fatherlike figure in this world, but a deep part of this culture for him is the near constant ritual of remembrance for those lost and killed in Vietnam. Every year, he and the other vets make a motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. to pay their respects. But more important than the destination itself is the fellowship and friendship Ron shares along the journey. At various stops they host events intended to remember the war for themselves, and to share their experiences with others, even using replica tiger cages the POWs were held in — the cage a symbol of what they continue to carry in their own trauma.
At the same time, Ron is newly married to Alicia, a Mexican woman, and he’s adjusting both to her Mexican culture and to the culture of being married again. Granik unveils elements of Stray Dog’s life slowly and deliberately along the way, revealing his previous marriage and children and grandchildren about halfway through the film. That’s not to say Ron is absent in their lives, as he’s a protective Papa Bear always offering up his advice and opinions on his granddaughter’s life choices. It’s a role he also takes with his biker buddies and younger vets, listening to their darkest stories, offering guidance, helping them get to the dentist.
While Alicia has completely adopted Ron’s country biker lifestyle and seems to love both it and him greatly, it’s a different tale of cultural adaptation for her 19-year-old twin sons, Jesus and Angel, whom she and Ron retrieve from Mexico City to come and live with them in Missouri. The twins are handsome, cosmopolitan, well-dressed and coiffed, and the move from an urban environment to a country lifestyle is a shock for them (though every American they meet exclaims at how happy they must be to be here because of all the “opportunity”). Economic reality is dissonant with the American dream in this film, as Ron likens his granddaughter’s employment situation to indentured servitude, and thinks his days picking cotton might have been a better deal in life.
Despite the struggles Ron faces, the cultural adaptations and compromises that he and Alicia and Jesus and Angel have to make, the love that they share, and that he exudes, comes through clearly. The hairy, tough, leather-bound exterior belies a gentle, sensitive soul, one that can’t help but continue to reach out to others, to offer a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. You get the feeling that doing this for others is what helps Ron with his own problems: the lingering memories, the nightmares and terrors he has every night, the anxiety and PTSD. As we welcome home even more generations of traumatized soldiers, it’s the Vietnam vets that we have to look to to understand how this will affect these men and women down the road. In looking at these rough and tough, off-the-grid bikers, you can understand why they might have stayed away from the normal suburban life, fostering families of buddies and fellow vets, chasing a wartime adrenaline high on the road.
With such a purely observational style (no interviews, no archival footage, no voice over, no addresses to the camera), Granik skillfully manipulates and builds the narrative, revealing more and more elements of Stray Dog’s life along the way. It’s an impressive feat of unfolding this story, though there are a few moments where it loses the narrative thrust and momentum along the way. Still, it’s a remarkable portrait not only of this particular man, but of a culture in a transitioning moment: adapting to new influences and growing older, but continuing, always, to remember. Despite the side effects they they still suffer, they continue remembering, as a way of teaching, and as a way of healing. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.