×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Stray Dog’

'Winter's Bone' director Debra Granik delivers a superb slice of American life on the margins in this low-key humanist study.

With:
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, Alicia Soriano-Hall, Felipe Angel Padilla Soriano, Felipe de Jesus Padilla Soriano, Cristy Thomas, Robin Smith, Cynthia Smith, Theodore Smith, Evelyn Maylath Hall, Al Maylath.

You may think you know Ron “Stray Dog” Hall from the early scenes of his namesake documentary: A paunchy, sixtysomething Missouri Vietnam vet, Hall is first seen hanging around the trailer park with his fellow biker buddies, chain-smoking and sipping from a jar of moonshine, with leather jackets, guns and stars-and-bars patches as far as the eye can see. But what, then, to make of the following scenes, where he gets teary-eyed talking to his therapist, travels to strangers’ military funerals, and sits down at his computer for online Spanish lessons? “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik provides plenty of such surprises in her superb slice of American life on the margins, a low-key humanist study of an extraordinary ordinary man that should find plenty of love on the festival and specialty circuits.

In an era when many coastal Americans’ ideas of the heartland poor come from such hicksploitation TV series as “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Hall provides a very welcome, walking corrective. After meeting him while shooting “Winter’s Bone,” in which he had a minor role, Granik returned to his rural Missouri stomping grounds, and seems to have allowed him free reign to simply be himself as the cameras rolled.

Currently employed as an RV park manager, Hall is a veteran of two brutal tours in Vietnam, and his wartime wounds are still very raw four decades later; he still experiences chronic nightmares, and he speaks perceptively of the ways in which his combat experiences permanently rewired his brain. Hall alludes to a long, lost period as an angry young biker, but he has since managed to channel his anger and lust for adrenaline into more productive endeavors. In addition to frequent visits to military funerals and de facto counseling sessions with his fellow vets, Hall takes part in a cross-country motorcycle ride to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., every year.

Along for the ride is Alicia, Hall’s warmly maternal Mexican wife. Though her English is only a mite better than his Spanish, the two speak to each other in a charming sort of bilingual mishmash, and more or less make room for one another’s cultures in a similarly give-and-take manner. Theirs is an unlikely yet obviously loving partnership, complicated only by the fact that Alicia’s teenage twin sons, Angel and Jesus, are still living in Mexico City.

Throughout the film, Granik eschews the blunter instruments of the documentarian’s toolkit: no direct-to-camera address, explanatory text/narration or obvious political statements. As such, the interesting corners of Hall’s life — including his daughter and young grandchild, from a previous marriage to a Korean woman he met while enlisted — only gradually come into view throughout the pic’s leisurely running time. But what registers most strongly is Hall’s simple, unpretentious goodness, from the way he and his buddies volunteer to make home repairs for an elderly woman whose daughter was killed in Afghanistan, to his bluntly compassionate response to a resident who can’t pay his rent: “Hell, it ain’t like I never been poor.”

While the substantial poverty of this community is always hiding in plain sight, Hall and his compatriots prove such likable subjects that one gradually starts to feel comfortable living alongside them, which only makes it more of a shock when Angel and Jesus finally arrive from Mexico. Though they’re never less than polite, it’s immediately clear that this hardscrabble environment is hardly what the two teenagers envisioned El Norte to look like, and the scenes in which a procession of rural Americans with missing teeth and secondhand clothes ask these stylish, sophisticated-looking young Mexicans how glad they are to have made it to the land of opportunity take on a particularly bitter edge.

Though “Stray Dog” is slowly paced and at times a bit repetitive, Granik and her crew rarely risk losing their audience’s attention, and they uncover a wealth of images that are alternately striking, symbolic and singular — or, in the case of a long shot of the tattooed, sunburned, leather-clad Hall standing at attention next to a pair of Cub Scouts, all of the above at once.

Film Review: 'Stray Dog'

Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), June 15, 2014. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: A Still Rolling Prods. presentation. Produced by Anne Rosellini. Executive producer, Johnathan Scheuer.

Crew: Directed by Debra Granick. Camera (color, DV), Eric Phillips-Horst; editor, Victoria Stewart; music supervisor, Marideth Sisco; sound, Derek Hall, David Fleming; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Peter Levin.

With: Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, Alicia Soriano-Hall, Felipe Angel Padilla Soriano, Felipe de Jesus Padilla Soriano, Cristy Thomas, Robin Smith, Cynthia Smith, Theodore Smith, Evelyn Maylath Hall, Al Maylath.

More Film

  • Berlin Awarded 'Tess' Sells to Multiple

    Berlin Awarded 'Tess' Sells to Multiple Territories (EXCLUSIVE)

    Berlin-based sales agent Picture Tree Intl. has sold Steven Wouterlood’s coming-of-age film “My Extraordinary Summer with Tess,” which received a Special Mention from the jury of Berlin Film Festival’s Generation KPlus section, to distributors in several territories. Among the buyers are Les Films Du Preau in France, Proview Entertainment in Taiwan, Angel Films in Denmark, [...]

  • China Box Office: ‘Wandering Earth’ Reaches

    China Box Office: ‘Wandering Earth’ Reaches $557 Million in Second Week

    The winning films from Chinese New Year remained on top of the Chinese box office in their second normal weekend of release. Locally-made sci-fi film “The Wandering Earth” advanced its score to $557 million. “Wandering Earth” earned $88.8 million between Friday and Monday, according to data from Asian film industry consultancy Artisan Gateway. That was [...]

  • Nuno Beato’s ‘My Grandfather’ Part of

    ‘My Grandfather Used to Say He Saw Demons’ Marks Sardinha em Lata’s Animation Build

    Portuguese animator-producer-director Nuno Beato, whose credits include “Emma & Gui,” “Híssis” and the multi-prized “My Life In Your Hands,” will pitch a new project, currently in development, “My Grandfather Used to Say He Saw Demons” at Bordeaux’s upcoming Cartoon Movie, the leading European animated feature forum. Cartoon Movie runs March 5-7. More Reviews Sundance Film [...]

  • DF-10193 – L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor),

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Leads MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Sound Editing

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed up love from Cinema Audio Society sound mixers with a pair of honors at the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ 66th annual Golden Reel Awards Sunday night. The musical biopic scored wins for dialogue and ADR as well as sound editing in a musical. The film is nominated for sound editing at the Oscars [...]

  • Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" in

    Writers Guild Makes It Official: This Is the Most Wide-Open Oscars Race Ever

    For the record, we’re in uncharted territory this Oscar season. While we still have the costume designers’ ceremony to get through on Tuesday, the Writers Guild Awards put a bow on the major guild kudos circuit Sunday night. The results have yielded what is, unequivocally, the most wide-open Oscar field in history. More Reviews Sundance [...]

  • Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and

    WGA Awards 2019: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?,' 'Eighth Grade' Win Screenplay Awards

    In a pair of upsets, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has won the Writers Guild of America’s adapted screenplay award for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and Bo Burnham has won the original screenplay award for “Eighth Grade.” The major television trophies went to “The Americans,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Homeland” and “Barry” for the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel' No Match for China's 'Wandering Earth' Overseas

    Hollywood movies like “Alita: Battle Angel” and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” are doing respectable business overseas, but they’re proving no match for foreign titles at the international box office. The Chinese New Year is bringing in huge business in the Middle Kingdom. China’s sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth” pulled in a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content