“I was put in a leadership position when I was far way too young to be in a leadership position. I made decisions that haunt my ass and always will,” says Ron Hall of the time he served in Vietnam in Debra Granik’s documentary Stray Dog. Hall may be right, but it’s easy to imagine why his commanding officers made him a leader. A tattooed mountain of a man who exudes empathy, honesty, and strength, he has shoulders broad enough for nearly everyone he comes across to lean on.
Stray Dog is about someone that most people who watch art-house documentaries would probably shun or make negative assumptions about at first sight. A biker whose handle is “Stray Dog,” but whose cheerfully solicitous wife, Alicia, calls Ronnie, Hall soon proves to be a welcome antidote to stereotypes about burly, bearded red-state RV dwellers—starting with the fact that his beloved Alicia is Mexican and his first wife was Korean. One of the most poignant ways in which Hall defies stereotype is the mix of intense patriotism and principled pacifism that compels him to spend so much time at ceremonies honoring POWs, MIAs, and service men and women killed in action. His attendance is also, one senses, an attempt to exorcise the demons that have haunted him ever since Vietnam, finding a kind of peace and understanding he can find only with other veterans. Here, too, he’s a natural leader, absorbing confidences from traumatized men with restorative calm and understanding.
Hall played a crime boss in Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which was in many ways the polar opposite of this film. His culturally diverse, emotionally open household provides as stark a contrast to the hardscrabble, xenophobic violence of the Ozarks community in Granik’s earlier film as the visual richness of Winter’s Bone does to the stark drabness of Stray Dog. Shot only with existing, often fluorescent light, this doc takes place mainly inside cramped, cheaply furnished rooms or in fields of yellowing grass. The pink blossoms in Hall’s front yard are such a rare glimpse of beauty that they register deeply in their lingering close-up, a visual manifestation of this outwardly gruff man’s inner grace.