Directed by Debra Granik
Opens July 3 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Stray Dog begins with leather-clad, grizzly-bearded bikers line-dancing in a strip-mall parking lot, and then picnicking, chopping up cheese with a hatchet while bantering in voices like James Gammon’s “Fisherman’s Greek” bit in Cabin Boy. The air of crusty cuddliness never quite dissipates, but the loving tone of Debra Granik’s documentary portrait of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall—a nonprofessional actor whom she recruited to play a backwoods kingpin during the location shoot for her Winter’s Bone—deepens into a heartening, sometimes melancholy portrait of Americana’s tattered fringes.
Portly and red-cheeked, Ron wears his black motorcycle vest frequently enough that his tan lines are blinding; an American flag tattoo commemorates his two tours in Vietnam, and when his wife goes away, he can take care of her lapdog, but not the coffee machine. Granik follows the many threads of his life today: running an RV park outside of Branson, Missouri (where he helps a friend pull his own teeth to save on dental bills); riding in the annual cross-country rally ending at the Vietnam Wall, and performing outreach with aging and newly minted veterans; learning Spanish on his desktop computer, so he can talk with his Mexican wife, Alicia—and her two adult sons, Jesús and Ángel, whom he helps to emigrate. Though Ron claims not to like giving advice, he can’t help it: advising his working-poor granddaughter to go to school, and quizzing her about her boyfriend (“Is he a flake? Would I like him? Where’s he work?”), or worrying over Jesús and Ángel’s transition (they feel isolated in their new rural environs, though one trailer park denizen blithely assumes they must be over the moon to be out of Mexico City). Most frequently, he espouses the importance of open talk with fellow veterans, and himself cries easily: when looking over old photos, considering the ravages of PTSD, or contemplating his own actions as a young man at war.
Late in the film, Granik goes for a laugh when Jesús and Ángel look up the Spanish translation of a word they hear Ron say a lot: “pussy.” That it’s a word we’ve never heard him say in Granik’s edit makes it clear that Stray Dog is an act of willed affection as much as a document of it. Mark Asch