‘Stray Dog’ Review: Harley-Davidson Culture Is Therapy for US Biker War Vets
NEW YORK—Biker culture. Harley-Davidson culture. Lately we Americans think we know all about outlaw biker culture, having been inundated with the FX biker gang show, “Sons of Anarchy.”
Anyone thinking “Anarchy” is what American motorcycle club culture is all about, should watch the fine documentary “Stray Dog,” (winner at the Los Angeles Film Festival) by director Debra Granik, who launched Jennifer Lawrence’s star into the stratosphere with the chilling Ozark Mountain tale “Winter’s Bone.”
Granik goes back to the Ozarks to have a look at lawful biker culture, and what’s revealed is that the motorcycle fix feeds the adrenaline addiction that dogs most veterans who’ve experienced the forced hyper-awareness of combat. As one young Desert Storm vet relates, the rush of having been the 50-caliber roof-gunner on a combat vehicle makes him need the experience of the open road rushing underneath the V-twin engine of his Harley.
Granik’s “Stray Dog” is a stark, insightful portrayal of the U.S. biker culture that overlaps with American trailer-park culture, veteran culture, gun culture, hunting culture, military culture, NASCAR-culture, eastern U.S. mountain-range culture, tattoo culture, beard culture, among others—which covers so much culture, you could make a good argument for the conglomerate being the predominant culture in the USA. In fact, being the most warring nation ever, perhaps America, like the biker tattoo, was “Born to Ride.”
Star of the Show
It’s all about one Ronnie Hall—aka “Stray Dog.” He’s a Harley-accoutrement-clad, chopper-riding, medal-festooned, glad-handing, 60-something Vietnam vet. Operator of the At Ease trailer park (just outside Branson, Mo.), and hirsute multicultural family patriarch.
Granik had cast him in “Winter’s Bone” as a local Ozark crime warlord (along with a couple of mean-looking biker buds), and found him to be so interesting that she continued to follow him around with a camera for a couple of years.
But this is no “Duck Dynasty,” or “Honey Boo Boo” trashsploitation. Great lessons and wisdom abound in the marginal places in life. But as mentioned, in the United States, this lifestyle is not really all that marginal.
But we do get some strong stuff right off the bat; prior to a motorcycle run, somebody pulls out a canning jar of clear liquid that gets passed around. By the expressionless faces, you’d think it was water. Then you realize you’re getting a mountain-culture lesson: That’s not water, that’s 190-proof moonshine—it can peel the paint off your car.
“Yeah, we shinin’.” says one of the bikers’ old ladies. And you see the remnants of Ozark Scots-Irish stoicism—no wincing whatsoever, even though every swig of the legendary firewater, by definition, scorches off a few esophageal tissue layers.
‘Run to the Wall’
That’s where this bike run is headed—to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s an annual, ritualistic gathering to pay tribute to Vietnam’s fallen, with candlelight vigils, old photos of lost comrades-in-arms, and the finding and tracing of names etched in the polished black stone.
It really amounts to a self-designated, thunderous honor guard, with at least one Harley chopper carrying the American, the MIA, and the U.S. Marine Corps flags, all strapped to the sissy bar. The understanding of the solace and sense of belonging, not to mention the earth-shattering power of 300,000 revved, straight-pipe engines, and black leather-beards-bandana uniforms—is implicit. Because in these instances, all of the above are absolutely uniforms. Solemnity and tears abound.
The life of the American war-vet biker is one of often attending funerals and memorials for newly fallen armed forces personnel, as well as ritual acknowledgement of POWs and MIAs. There’s as much elaborate pomp and circumstance as can be mustered in little forlorn cemeteries out near freeways, and Rotary Club basements. There’s much saluting, playing of “Taps,” occasional helicopter flyovers, and even one ritual POW enactment with a vet tied up in a bamboo tiger cage.
It’s understated in the film, but Hall still has nightmares from jungle warfare fought with the 4th Infantry Division nearly half a century ago. He thinks the entire war was a mistake now, and the spoils-of-war ear necklace he made, as a fool youth, weighs in extremis upon his soul. “It was all so unnecessary,” he says. However, he’s still outraged at the hostility and indifference soldiers encountered when they returned from Vietnam.
Forty Acres and an Iron Mule
Hall lives with a collection of small dogs in a beat-up trailer on a beaten dirt patch. He’s king of this trailer community, renting space to RV owners.
As director Granik later says in the Q&A at the press screening, “Little dogs are the little-known therapy for war veterans, they carry them, keep them close to their bodies like extra hearts.” Hall’s got four. Hence, his nickname.
Hall recommends therapy to all fellow vets who’ll listen, and they do listen. Especially the elderly fellow ex-soldier who breaks down after relating his personal POW experience: He’d witnessed a young captive American soldier’s arms being macheted at the wrists.
The key is to get a psychotherapist who’s a vet and who knows. As vets say, “If you ain’t been there, then shut up.” (A mild suggestion of the actual phrase.) Hall’s therapist asks him, “If you forgave yourself, would you be dishonoring them?” to which he replies with a vehement “Yes.”
And with the procession of gatherings and rituals and re-enactments and grief on display in the film, one gets the sense, especially from Hall himself, that the tears, while genuine, are also a way these veterans feel they can repay their debts, of lives taken. And so they take every opportunity.
Hall’s conversational in Korean. His first (Korean) wife died. His daughter’s a single mom on hard times. Her own unwed daughter, now pregnant with Hall’s great-grandchild and working two no-account jobs—has her wages garnished. Hall’s granddaughter’s baby-daddy works at a McDonald’s.
While this all starts to get into “Honey Boo Boo” territory, this cultural aspect of Hall’s life, while it does heavily intersect at the crossroads of cultures such as the one depicted in movies like “Supremacy,” it does not become road buddies with that ilk. There’s no racism anywhere to be seen. Hall’s present wife is Mexican, and he takes in her two teenage boys. This is one white man with a lot of love to give.
A wonderful example of this is a moving scene where Hall and other white veterans stand in a prayer circle with a black mother who lost her daughter, a soldier, in Afghanistan. They kiss her teary face and repair the floorboards that her leaky water heater had rotted out. It’s a display of beauteous compassion and a powerful reminder that our allegedly red-blue polarized nation actually has more purple hearts than you’d think.
Stray Dog’s Old Lady
Hall met Alicia while in Mexico and he studies Spanish to communicate better. She’s deeply religious, but would also appear to be a seeker, as her bedroom shrine contains a collection of Catholic saints and Indian deities.
Theirs is a wonderful, uncomplicated love, and she brings warmth and orderliness to his life, along with admonitions to shampoo his beard.
She tries hard to fit in, bringing a plate of grilled crickets around the trailer park. One of Hall’s friends, whose teeth he’d helped yank to avoid dentist bills, says, “I don’t like the legs, they don’t chew up too good.” Priceless.
Alicia’s got twins, 19-year-old boys, Felipe Angel and Felipe De Jesus, in Mexico, from an earlier marriage. And here’s where the movie takes an abrupt turn; they change the film’s perspective.
Once the two handsome boys have been successfully brought from Mexico to Hall’s inner trailer park circle, we suddenly see this man, Stray Dog, through their eyes.
They’re touchingly old-school courteous and well-mannered; they politely try to resolve the culture-shock of moving to rural Missouri from their far more cosmopolitan Mexico City lifestyle, and furthermore with their suddenly dashed expectations of a better life in the United States. “It’s all highways here,” says one of them on a phone call to Mexico.
No nightlife, just the occasional bonfire, and attempts by neighbors to teach these shy boys to ride a Harley and shoot a deer rifle. Ain’t that America? It’s bleak. It’s very painful to see America from the vantage point of standing in these boys’ shoes.
They do appreciate Hall’s bending over backward for them, and naturally, they’re grateful to him for taking good care of their mother. To great relief, director Granik relates in the Q&A that the boys are now in college. This is a huge load off. That info was not in the film and should have been.
All-in-all, “Stray Dog” isn’t so much about the trauma of the past as it is about trying to make the present work. It’s about meeting people—Harley brothers, fellow vets, and sons of the old lady. Hall meets ’em all, and is of continual, heartfelt service to those in need.
The film shows the deep human need to be sustained by ritual, and how, when our past bows us down with an unbearable weight, we can take our minds off it by doing good deeds for others and lessen our karmic loads. Ron “Stray Dog” Hall: exemplary American citizen. Over and out.
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Ronnie Hall
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Release Date: July 3
3.5 stars out of 5