Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Viet Vet on a Harley rides down stereotypes

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Debra Granik
Produced by Anne Rosellini
Released by New World Distribution
USA. 105 min. Not Rated
In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center

Debra Granik’s Winter's Bone (2010) let loose an Oscar-nominated performance by Jennifer Lawrence that was especially set off by the verisimilitude of the rough-hewn people around her, including the scary-looking Ozarks crime boss played by Ron “Stray Dog” Hall. But in following-up with his real life, Granik’s documentary Stray Dog is a profound lesson in how fictional looks can be deceiving, even when a guy looks straight out of TV’s Sons of Anarchy.

Granik gradually peels layers and layers off the big, bearded, muscled, Harley-Davidson riding Viet Nam War vet living in a trailer park in southern Missouri. He first teaches us how the leather-clad cross-country motorcyclists joining up for “Run For The Wall” (with a motto of “We Ride For Those Who Can’t”) is a moving lesson in bonding for veterans with belatedly-recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (and self-medicating addictions) to remember those killed and missing in action or as POWs, including across racial lines. His almost tenderly thoughtful provision of emotional and practical aid for their families is a heartbreaking reminder that for all these years they have been without the children who would have helped and supported them now in their straitened times.

Through extraordinarily intimate cinema verité, Granik goes beyond even this affecting lesson in loyalty and patriotism to let Hall gradually defy any stereotyped images of soldiers and masculinity (let alone the Midwestern heartland), to expose how he has therapeutically grappled with and overcome these difficulties by re-building and sharing his life over years with altruism and an unexpected new love. His heart seems to expand on screen as their relationship surmounts limited English, cross-border bureaucracy, and the baggage of her teenage sons from Mexico who have different notions of freedom and the American Dream, let alone keeping connected with his own struggling family.

What an insightful ride through a slice of Americana compared to the manipulated anthropology of reality TV!


Addendum 5/22/2015: “Stray Dog” and the guys with their families he rides with are the antithesis of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs made notorious in the shootout in Waco, Texas. An edited version of this review.

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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