Once, whenever I had to articulate the frustrating sameness of the documentary filmmaking landscape, I’d have to launch into a litany of formal cliches and tropes. But now I have simpler way to explain myself. Whenever someone asks what I mean when I say that too many docs look and feel the same, I can say, “None of them are like Stray Dog.” This is a film that blows apart your preconceived notions of how a documentary can be put together, and it does so by being unlike 99% of any of the others. And it does this so effortlessly that it throws the laziness that many filmmakers have in their craft into sharp relief.
There are no interviews in this film. There is no voice over. There is no expository text. There are no infographics, reconstructions or any other method that one might associate with the stereotypical nonfiction film. It is also a perfectly told story with vivid characters, an acute sense of place and many marvelous emotional beats. It shouldn’t be a big deal that a doc successfully exists without any narrative crutches, the kind fiction films can easily go without, and yet Stray Dog feels invigoratingly fresh for doing so. That’s a mark against the expectations both viewers and creators have of what can be done with documentary and a testament to the simple brilliance of director Debra Granik and her crew.
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is the aged owner of an RV park in rural Missouri. He lives in a cramped house with four dogs and his Mexican-born wife Alicia, who is recently arrived in America and still learning the language. Stray Dog is a biker and looks every inch it — he’s barrel-chested, leather-clad and grungily bearded. But his personality is very much the opposite of whatever apprehensive image one may conjure up of a biker. He’s sweet-natured, clever, and thoughtful. While his wife learns English, he learns Spanish. He’s an active participant in the veteran community, attending many funerals, tributes and other ceremonies over the course of the film.
Every year, he rides the “Run for the Wall” event, a cross-country motorcycle pilgrimage to DC, where he and other participants pay respects to the fallen of the Vietnam War. A veteran of that conflict himelf, Stray Dog still suffers from PTSD, a result both of what he saw and what he did there. Alicia speaks of how she must comfort him through his nightmares on most nights. In another defiance of tough guy stereotypes, he’s seeing a therapist for his problems. At every turn, Stray Dog proves himself to be more than you think he is.
The same is true of this film, which is a series of simple events that amount to an incredibly complex whole. Over its runtime, Stray Dog tries to help his pregnant granddaughter straighten out her life, does the best he can for his friends and tenants in the RV park, helps Alicia’s twin sons immigrate from Mexico and fixes the floor of an elderly woman simply because her daughter died in the Middle East and she has no one else who can help her.
All of this is interspersed with his sundry biker activities. There’s a loose connective tissue in seeing Alicia’s sons come to and then try to adjust to Missouri, but this is a slice of life story through and through. In following this one man and his family and friends, the film showcases nearly every issue that faces small town America today. There’s the lack of work, immigration, the failures of the VA system, healthcare, religious values and more, not to mention the ways they overlap.
But this is not an issue film. Those concerns are secondary to exploring Stray Dog. There’s little chance he isn’t the best doc protagonist of the year. Completely lovable, deeply sympathetic and terrifically funny, Stray Dog seems to embody laudable value of rural life without falling prey to the negative qualities associated with red state Christians. Yet the movie doesn’t sugarcoat the pain he bears, and suggests that he’s only reached this pleasant state of being after much anguish and bad decision-making.
We learn everything we need to in this movie via natural conversation. Granik and editor Victoria Stewart have cut things so well together that there is never any need for artificial exposition. Even the docs that eschew interviews generally use some narration, but there’s nothing like that here. The camera might as well not be present, as far as the characters are concerned. It’s wonderfully naturalistic, and I want every documentarian to take notes from it.
Granik made a splash in 2010 with Winter’s Bone, which introduced most of the world to Jennifer Lawrence, and now she’s proved just as adept at nonfiction as fiction. Stray Dog is likely to stay far under the radar, but I hope it can catch the attention of at least a few of the right people.
This review was originally published on June 17, 2014, as part of our coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival.