Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is a man of many identities. In the opening frames of Stray Dog, a low-key documentary from Winter’s Bone filmmaker Debra Granik, he’s simply a biker, clad in leather and hanging out with his fellow road warriors at a honky-tonk joint. He’s also a Vietnam veteran and, as the film gradually reveals, a staunch advocate for military families, whether it’s stumping for fellow vets to pursue PTSD treatment (as he does, candidly and unselfconsciously) or comforting relatives of the deceased. He’s the benevolent landlord of the At Ease RV park in southern Missouri, in the heart of the Ozark region. And he’s a family man doting on his second wife, Alicia, a Mexican woman determined to bring her twin teenage sons to America.
Stray Dog grew out of a chance encounter between Granik and Hall when the latter was cast for a small part in Winter’s Bone and brought along several of his friends and neighbors to populate that film’s authentically hardscrabble milieu. The documentary is simply at extended look of a man at the social nexus of his community, and a fascinating portrait of the cultural cross-pollination that defines so many American lives. It’s a case study of the great American virtue of contradiction—an individualistic, politically cynical man from a homogeneous rural community raises his multi-ethnic family and pursues a patriotic duty to touch as many lives as he can, wherever he can.
Granik makes the somewhat iconoclastic decision to present the film without any narration or “talking head” interviews, letting the chronology and the cast set the appropriate tone. She has a bona fide star in Hall, whose hirsute appearance and occasionally gruff demeanor mask his overall sensitivity and salt-of-the-earth compassion, as well as his surprisingly worldly ways. For example, the reveal that Hall is learning Spanish to better communicate with Alicia and her family is a cute joke, but it’s constantly re-framed as he casually reveals all other languages he’s familiar with: Korean (from a lengthy Army stint there) and a little bit of Vietnamese. Though it’s slight on the details of Hall’s often difficult past, the more time we spend with him, the more we come to appreciate the film’s potluck aesthetic and natural, meandering rhythms. It’s the kind of movie that illustrates the truth in old adages. Aside from a veterans’ cross-country motorcycle rally that culminates with an emotional reckoning at the Vietnam War Memorial, the journey really is more important than the destination.
Accepting that is key to enjoying Stray Dog, as it doesn’t really hit its stride until a late arc that follows Alicia’s sons as they navigate the U.S. immigration system. Here, Granik not only highlights the evolutionary patterns of national identity and the carefully-observed rituals that bind communities, but also suggests an unexpected ambivalence toward the American Dream. Hall’s progeny from his first marriage struggle financially, as do the majority of his friends and neighbors, and the youngest generation in particular suffers from the lack of economic opportunity. And the two Mexican city kids don’t look all that thrilled about being plucked from their bustling urban lives to embrace a new provincial lifestyle. But perhaps they’ll pick up on the film’s cue about taking a closer look at their surroundings. All of it is essential to Hall’s story. Think again about his seemingly ill-suited nickname, and you’ll see how amazing it truly is. Once a loner and a wanderer, this so-called “Stray Dog” has adopted a entire corner of his world and claimed it as his kin.