What: Film Review
Directed by: Debra Granik
Produced by: Anne Rossellini, Victoria Stewart
Featuring: Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, Alicia Soriano Hall, Felipe Angel Padilla Soriano, Felipe de Jesús Padilla Soriano
Edited by: Victoria Stewart
Languages: English, Spanish w/ English subtitles
Running Time (in min.): 98 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Independent Spirit Award Nominee for Best Documentary (2015)
Today is December 2nd, 2015, and before writing this, I have just read about a shooting – with updates still in progress – at a home for the disabled in San Bernardino, California, a forty-five minute drive from where I grew up. Don’t worry, this isn’t a diatribe, but I do want to give you some context for my perspective at this moment.
The recent spat of mass shootings around the United States, where I have lived since birth, has done to me what every politically-engaged person of the older generation fears it might: shocked me into an opinion-catatonia, wherein my disgust and fear lead to disengagement and political apathy. I abhor this country’s current situation with equal amounts of gratitude, amazement, and conscientious consideration for the privileges awarded me. As far as I can tell, this psychological dichotomy formed when I was a sophomore in high school, and several gifted students at Virginia Tech were killed, as Malcolm Gladwell recently noted, by a “classically psychopathic” peer. George W. Bush was the President of the United States then, and society under his auspices couldn’t be trusted to respond appropriately to the shooting.
Not much has changed, but my chronic sense of disconnection from the news and from pain in the wider social atmosphere takes some hits every now-and-again. In 2012, I saw The Dark Knight Rises  while living abroad in Australia (though I was in a theater in Rotorua, New Zealand that weekend), only to hear the next day that a horrible incident had just taken place at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. A few years later and only a few months ago from today, I saw Judd Apatow’s and Amy Schumer’s lovable Trainwreck ; and right on schedule, another tragedy by gunfire, at a screening of the film in Louisiana. I see many films every year, some in a theater, but it is rare that they push me towards deeper senses of the world, or towards – even more scarcely – a love of country. Most of them go in one ear and out the other. As I’ve said: apathy.
Against all odds, though, there have been two films this year that brought me back into the political moment. They are bound by the term “independent documentary,” the associations of which colored their content before I could even see them (positively, in my case, as a fan of the “genre.”) The first of these films, The Look of Silence – which I reviewed at SXSW in March – was directed by the Copenhagen-based MacArthur Fellow Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s a sad and damning masterpiece set in contemporary Indonesia, and to my mind, every person in the world should see it.
The second such work, Stray Dog, has been several years in the making from the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Debra Granik, most recently before this of Winter’s Bone . It takes as its subject a Vietnam War veteran and inveterate biker named Ronnie Hall who goes by “Stray Dog”; and his new life with Alicia Soriano, a spiritual and loyal former Mexican citizen he recently married.
Hall’s story is a-dime-a-dozen, and so is his wife’s, whose two children also come to live with Ron in Southern Missouri – so why have Granik and her producers, Victoria Stewart (who edited, beautifully) and Anne Rossellini, made them the subject of a feature? Reviews for this film have noted that it feels small or unassuming, not only because the subjects lives read as unexceptional to the coastal intelligentsia, but also because the film lacks any clear below-the-line costs, like makeup, professional lighting, or hairstyling. I believe that this kind of rhetoric disrespects the film, which looks especially handsome during outdoor scenes in the heartland. And it also marks a clear oversight of some of the film’s philosophies.
Stray Dog holds to the adage that people are like snowflakes: each one looks different from the millions around it, while being part of the millions. No one knows this better than Hall, who greets many acquaintances and strangers on the road with an almost outrageous sensitivity. His warmth feels rare – children are so compelled by his Santa-like aura that they ask him for Vietnam stories, and a few contemporary vets (from engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and goodness-knows-where else) cry on camera. Granik has always had a knack for exposing her subject’s emotional veins, on display best in her 2004 debut Down to the Bone. In that film, a drug-addicted suburbanite debases herself to fulfill her greatest needs; a dime-a-dozen-story, once again told with a rare sensitivity.
Under her direction, Hall becomes a locus for the sensations of repulsion, anger, patriotism, and confusion that characterize a wide swath of our current society (my own included.) He is a reflection, psychologically and physically, of how “Middle America” is experiencing war, poverty, climate change, immigration, and all the major subjects of our cultural moment. Take his experiences traveling to Mexico with Alicia, helping her with her English while offering to support his stepsons in rural Missouri. Though the sequence takes barely twenty minutes of the film, it captures all four characters at peak stress: Angel and Jesús, moving to the U.S.; Ronnie, desperately measuring his finances (he runs an RV Park where tenants rarely pay on time); and Alicia, praying to multiple gods for assistance.
The only thing missing from this remarkably unremarkable story of the Soriano-Hall clan is sex – though you can go back to Down to the Bone for that – and Granik and her eagle-eyed cinematographer, Eric Phillips-Horst, manage to paint their social portrait without ever seeming to intrude. In a time when our government has both good and bad reasons to step inside our lives without permission, it’s stunning to see just how lightly the filmmakers have skimmed the surface while invoking so much. Granik never invades Ronnie’s life – she simply scopes it out. This is the family’s and filmmakers’ mutual gift to cinema, and I expect that the film would make a better submission to a time capsule of 2015 than a new Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s a document of just about everything we, as Americans, think about from day to day.