#NYFF52, Stray Dog: A Vietnam Vet Biker Doc Humanizing The Scars Of War In Middle America

September 19, 2014 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL will be bringing you continuing coverage from The New York Film Festival, which runs at Sep 26 – Oct 12 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Stray Dog plays Thursday, October 2nd at 7:30pm and Friday, October 3rd at 6:15pm. 

Ron “Stray Dog” Hall can’t forgive himself for cutting off the ears of another human being and wearing them on a chain around his neck “for nothing.” He tells his “shrink” that if he forgives himself, he will dishonor those he’s hurt. In another scene, Stray Dog explains to his Mexican wife that yes, U.S. is at war in Afghanistan and only “rich old men” start wars. He tells her that once a young person faces combat, he is never the same.

It takes Oscar-nominated filmmaker Debra Granik to show what is in the haunted heart of a man like this — an RV park manager in southern Missouri, tattooed with the American flag, his biker vest garlanded with medals.

The documentary follows Stray Dog as he takes part in memorial events across the state. He leads a motorcycle convoy of veterans through middle America. The speeches given at these events mourn the dead and preach honor, pride and valor — concepts eternally twisted into jingoistic rhetoric and leading to so many misguided military conflicts, the Vietnam War included, but here, they mean something. We can’t even talk about this without sounding jaded, and most of us have never had to see combat or ever will. Stray Dog has seen (and been) the worst, and now lives only to heal. He has nightmares at night. He sobs in his sleep. He laughs and smiles and takes care of his dogs. He practices his Spanish with a computer program. He drinks moonshine. He talks plainly and directly. He tells his grandkid to go to college, but a few scenes/months later, she’s got a kid and she’s not going to go to college. But he tries, all the time.

Beautifully shot and edited with all the flow of a feature fictional film, Stray Dog feels truer than our own judgements. It catches a particular sort of tenderness, sitting in on long-distance video conversations between “Ronnie” and his “heart” Alicia in Mexico. It flickers by the campfire when a look between Alicia’s nineteen-year-old twins expresses in a second the realization that they’re not in Mexico City anymore, they’re in a trailer park, they’re disappointed, but somehow, it’s ok. It ends with Stray Dog talking sweetly to a bee.

Stray Dog is an essential highlight of the NYFF documentary program. It vibrantly encompasses the themes of middle American poverty, immigration, the changing times, the unchanging tragedies, the complex feelings of loss, disorientation, mourning, confusion, anger and finally, some sort of redemption. At least, an ongoing journey to redemption that never, ever stops.

CHEAT SHEET: If you don’t manage to get tickets to the NYFF and you need to talk about it in conversation, here’s what to say:

– “That part where one of the twins is trying to explain where they live now and can’t find the Spanish word for it… Is it parque de autocaravanas?
– “Debra Granik should make more documentaries.”