Competing in the Documentary Competition of the Los Angeles Film Festival is Debra Granik’s “Stray Dog,” an immensely poignant and important portrait of Vietnam Veteran and biker, Ron “Stray Dog” Hall.
Granik who wrote and directed the award-winning films, “Down to the Bone,” and the more recent “Winter’s Bone” (starring the then nearly unknown Jennifer Lawrence) happened on Hall during the production of “Winter’s Bone.” Granik had sat next to Hall in the Biker Church in Branson, Missouri and offered him a small part in her movie. Needing some additional recordings for the film’s post-production, Granik returned to Hall’s home and found that Hall was a man worthy of his own documentary.
“Stray Dog” opens at a parking lot full of bikers – immediately we see the community here, and the support they give one another as they talk and travel to POW/MIA events, parades, the memorials for recent war fatalities, and the documentary’s centerpiece, the big ride to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
We come to know more about Ron, “Stray Dog” as this “slice of life” documentary unfolds. Ron is settling down with Alicia, a woman he met in Mexico. They both try and learn one another's language, and Ron confesses he is happy not to be alone anymore. We also meet Ron’s daughter and granddaughter, and later Alicia's two twin sons from Mexico. This is a picture of America’s blended, melting pot family.
Although a productive member of society, Ron is still a tough and troubled war vet. His session with his therapist and then later scenes with friends are powerful moments as he talks about his troubled conscience. He’s also a great humanist. Ron is never more commanding as when he empathizes with an Iraq soldier; or when he listens kindly to a fellow Vietnam Vet who explains why he’s late for his rent at Ron’s At Ease RV Park in Southern Missouri. Equally moving is when Ron offers advice to his young, pregnant and single granddaughter on how to be responsible in society and for her new little one.
It’s down-home, grassroots advice, but it means something to his circle of family and friends because it comes from a man who’s lived a full life and has numerous experiences, both good and bad.
As Granik explains in her film’s production notes, “Over his lifetime, Ron has sought ways to channel his post-combat need for high adrenalin levels and his natural restlessness into benign channels that are compatible with civilian survival. He searches for missions, for ways to be helpful, which often involve trying to solve a problem for a family member, a neighbor or a friend, or just understanding when someone can’t pay their rent because of a non-livable wage.”
“Stray Dog”’s timely message and its easy watchability is entirely due to Ron. Although the film’s tech credits are fine, one does wish that Granik had bookended the film a bit more. It would have been nice to know at the top where we are in Ron’s life when we are first introduced (as opposed to reading press notes). Conversely at the film’s end it would be great to have had some type of title card illuminating an update on Ron, Alicia and her two near-adult twin sons who have just joined the clan and who will most likely face their own challenges. But maybe that’s for a follow-up documentary, which would be welcome.