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.