By Don Simpson | July 3, 2015
Director: Debra Granik
There is a certain stereotype that Debra Granik’s Stray Dog shatters into oblivion. The titular Stray Dog — whose given name is Ron Hall — is a long-haired, burly biker with an affinity for leather and denim. He is a Vietnam veteran who owns a rural Missourian trailer park, aptly titled At Ease RV Park. It is also worth noting that he played the part of Thump Milton in Granik’s Winter’s Bone.
Hall possesses an uncompromisingly gentle and sensitive soul. On the outside he is a man’s man, but on the inside he is a kind and nurturing person. Upon first glance, Hall is someone you might condescendingly refer to as a “redneck,” “trailer trash” or “biker”; you would probably assume that he is a warmongering, fundamentalist Christian and narrow-minded racist. Sure, Hall loves his guns and bikes, but he is an incredibly open-minded and culturally diverse humanist. Married to a Mexican woman, Hall is dedicated to bringing his wife’s two sons to the United States as well (whether they will enjoy living in a trailer park in rural Missouri is another question entirely). From what we can tell in this documentary, Hall is damn near colorblind. Above all, Hall presents himself as a smart and reasonable person who understands the many fallacies of war. That said, Hall is totally supportive of veterans, especially those who suffer the same fate as him — riddled by the nightmarish life of PTSD. As Granik reveals more and more of Hall’s emotional vulnerabilities, she concurrently develops him into a fully-formed individual.
As we learn from Stray Dog, it is Hall’s guilt from his second stint in Vietnam that really formed him into the person he is today. Haunted by that particular period of his life, Hall refuses to forgive himself for the unforgivably violent actions of his past. Hall is an unfathomably scarred individual who has chosen to dedicate the rest of his life to help others.
Whether it is his natural personality or his trust in Granik, Hall’s life appears to be an open book. Granik adopts a purely observational perspective and Hall is unabashedly himself in front of the camera. Granik’s full immersion into this unique subculture allows her to establish an uncompromisingly authentic sense of place.
Though never blatantly political, Stray Dog intelligently discusses unemployment and underemployment; Hall is also deeply affected by the flaws of the VA system and the U.S. government’s treatment of veterans. A profoundly religious man, Hall is severely disheartened by the degradation of morals and values in the U.S., especially when it comes to helping one’s brother. He is fully supportive of anyone who wants to come to the U.S. to work, yet he also understands the time that is necessary for acclimation and assimilation. As Hall sees it, this is all part of standing up for his America.