There’s a line dance in the parking lot of a Dollar General. That sounds like the setup for a dim “rednecks” joke. It’s actually the first shot of Debra Granik’s nonfiction film Stray Dog. That’s not the only image she finds that raises those associations, either. There’s the boy who receives leather chaps and a deer rifle on Christmas morning. Or the woman who butts her way into a drinking circle with one quick question: “Y’all shinin’?” And then there’s Ron Hall, the man whose nickname gives this film its title. He’s got a beard that makes him look like Santa Claus, if Santa Claus had paid out over $50,000 for assault charges. His biker’s vest has even more patches than it does scratches, with many of them tied to his military service. And when he cuts some cheese to go with his crackers, he does it with an ax. Ron Hall looks like the sort of man you’d make those stupid jokes about.
That’s the idea you’d get in some individual scenes, at least—like the one where Ron sweeps up spilled salsa using the underside of his T-shirt. To call him a “southern slob,” at this moment, may be a fair impression. Making assumptions based on imagery is just human nature, after all. But challenging those assumptions—that’s the nature of cinema. Granik, working with editor Tory Stewart, structures Stray Dog to do exactly that: each shot and each sequence deconstructs the presumptions we’ve made based on the shots and sequences that preceded them. One early scene details the specifics of Ron’s daily life. And in that sense, it functions as exposition. Yet the way that information is laid out offers an upended expectation at each turn. It’s exposition as revelation.
First we see a sign for the At Ease RV Park, located in southern Missouri. Then we see a Mexican woman—that’d be Alicia—cleaning up one of the trailers. Then Alicia is eating alongside Ron, and we realize that the pair is married. Next up is a collection of dogs, each one small enough to fit into Paris Hilton’s purse. Then we see our burly subject cuddling up to the bunch, and we realize that Ron is caring for all these beasts. Then a new customer arrives, and we find that Ron is the proprietor of this park. After that he’s diligently studying Spanish—so that Alicia isn’t the only member of their small family struggling to become bilingual. Each cut brings with it new information. His good-ol’-boy symbols—the beard, the tattoos, the biker getup, the stains on his shirt—are still there. But nobody’s laughing anymore.
One of those cuts puts us inside a therapist’s office. Hall is speaking to his doctor about the regret he feels over the actions he took in Vietnam. Alicia describes it succinctly herself, later on: “His conscience churns inside of him.” Her husband would concur with that assessment. In a way, he approves of it. He tells the therapist that he made the conscious decision to never forgive himself for the lives he took. “Do I look like the kind of person who’d go out and mutilate a human body?” He justifies his own spiritual flagellation. He talks about the way that veterans of the era would often slice off the ears of the men they killed, as though they were collecting scalps. And he doesn’t break down emotionally, but he does slow his diction. “I guess so,” he finishes, “because I did.”
How do you respond to a self-assessment like that? What’s sure is that—by this point in the film—you’re no longer considering Ron as being representative of a social issue. Granik and Stewart’s depiction of him is too rife with contradictions and idiosyncrasies for that—he cannot be a symbol. “How can a person do that to another person,” he asks that therapist, after talking about his war crimes, “and still be human?” The complexities of Ron’s character continue to grow exponentially with each edit. (Next we see him riding in memorial parades and informally counseling veterans of recent combat.) He’s pro-military and anti-war. He’s an exemplar of southern culture who supports immigration. He looks blue, he talks red, yet he’d distance himself from either political party you asked. He may claim inhumanity, but the characteristics suggested by the editing’s juxtapositions? They’re not only human, they’re humane.
The structure that’s used to display that humanity is loose and expansive. It resembles literary fiction more than it does commercial narrative cinema—Stray Dog is the rare movie to earn that overused adjective “novelistic.” Ceremonies and conversation are what commands Granik’s gaze. There are cross-country veteran-based motorcycling marathons, local memorial services for lost POWs, and house calls made to the family members of deceased servicewomen. The camera watches all these activities in a stately manner, until they take their respective toll on Ron’s psyche. When his eyes turn down, Granik’s camera moves closer. Ron even endures some of these trials alone, while Alicia is in Mexico City with her twin 19-year-old sons. Then the trio returns to America, bringing along ceremonies of their own. If the non-linear lineup of Stray Dog recalls the form of the novel, then the return of Alicia with Angel and Jesus signals the start of Part II.
The pair allow for another aspersion to be cast against standard expectations of American life. Angel and Jesus are immigrants who left a city only to end up in a trailer park, deep in the ass-end of Missouri. They wear confusion (when Mom introduces chicken nuggets as the new cuisine of choice) and disappointment (when they see their closet-sized family bathroom) on their face as clearly as Ron wears his beard. (“It’s almost all highways” is what they have to say about their new nation.) The movie is with their perspective now—it’s hearing their conversations. And when the locals speak to the boys—often with a condescending tone, as though they were speaking to schoolchildren—they offer the usual received wisdom about the immigrant experience. “There’s a lotta opportunities out here,” one neighbor tells them. Granik frames the man so that he’s surrounded by nothingness when he says it. Their hope may not be lost, but in sequences like that, these boys are staring directly at empty promises.
Granik didn’t need to search for imagery that speaks with such eloquence. There are many lesser filmmakers who would’ve taken Ron’s most striking poses—in warrior-mode on his bike, and in daddy-mode with his doggies—and overused them until they were wilted motifs. But Granik and Stewart refuse to defer to poses of any kind. They find oddities instead. When the boys start to test for their citizenship, one of them wears a “South Park”-branded tie. (A curious image of cultural appropriation.) A woman stands on a chair to dance with her oversized boyfriend. (Perhaps that’s inequality.) And when Ron reveals the specifics of his military service, he’s sharing space in the frame with a man dressed as a clown. (No interpretation necessary.) Stray Dog deals with the heartland culture—you may be tempted to say that it’s a movie about “the Real America.” But these images, bless them, are too singular to be generalized. They can’t be indicative of anything other than the people standing in them.
We far-leftist Northeasterners sometimes like to say things like “the south is holding this nation back.” And we know it’s a more nuanced issue than that—but we believe it when we say it anyway. The micro elements of this movie—the way each edit reveals new information—upends our preconceptions about the people onscreen. And in a macro sense, the whole film does the same thing for perspectives on our national character. By divorcing concepts like military service, PTSD, poverty, and the immigration experience from political alignment, it sketches them all with a specificity that “red” and “blue” can never manage. Where most see simple statistics and ideologies, Granik sees the complex truth: individuals operating within a communal ecosystem, which itself operates within a national one. We see that first shot and we make assumptions, as usual. Then Stray Dog corrects us.
STRAY DOG. NOT RATED. PLAYS AT BRATTLE THEATRE FROM FRI 10.23—SUN 10.25. DIRECTOR DEBRA GRANIK IN PERSON FOR 7PM SHOWS ON 10.23 AND 10.24. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR OTHER SHOWTIMES. $9-11. ALSO AIRS ON PBS AFFILIATES (INCLUDING WGBH) ON NOV. 9.