Shortly after meeting Ron “Stray Dog” Hall at the Biker Church in Branson, Missouri, writer-director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) cast the Vietnam vet as Thump Milton in her second feature, the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone. Upon learning more about him, she soon decided that he would be a great subject for a documentary, so she took to the road, following him across the country in the engaging and revealing Stray Dog. Nearly always dressed in black, including his treasured leather jacket covered in medals and patches — when he puts it in a suitcase for a trip, it’s a ritual like he’s folding the American flag — Hall is a wonderfully grizzled old man with a fluffy white beard. At home, he is learning Spanish online so he can communicate better with his new wife, Alicia, a Mexican immigrant, and her two sons (who still live across the border). He visits with his teenage granddaughter, who is making some questionable decisions about her future. In Missouri, he owns and operates the At Ease RV Park, where he gives breaks to fellow vets who can’t always afford to pay the rent. And when he goes on the road, participating in the Run for the Wall, joining up with thousands of other bikers heading for the annual service at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, he stops along the way at other ceremonies honoring soldiers who have gone missing, are POWs, or were killed in action in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars.
Hall is a gregarious, gentle man who people instantly flock to and gather around — a scene in which two of his cats sit on each of his knees is absolutely heartwarming — but he is also haunted by some of the things he did in Vietnam, suffering from nightmares that sometimes have him screaming out loud while sleeping in bed. And he wears one of his mottoes right on his arm: “Never Forgive Never Forget.” At one point he sits comfortably on a couch and says, “Just kind of being free, don’t hurt nobody, do what you want to do — a nice thing, ain’t it? You know, I’d rather live as a free man for a year than a slave for twenty.” Granik simply follows Hall as he experiences life with his surprisingly refreshing point of view; no one ever turns to the camera to make any confessions, and no talking heads are brought on board to evaluate what we’re seeing. Granik just lets this beautiful piece of Americana unfold at its own pace while also touching on such hot-button topics as immigration reform, gun control, the economic crisis, and PTSD, making no judgments as we follow the captivating exploits of a man who is part Buddha, part Santa, and all patriot. Stray Dog, which made its New York premiere this past October at the 52nd New York Film Festival, will be screening March 11 at 7:00 at DCTV, followed by a Q&A with director Granik, editor and producer Tory Stewart, and cinematographer Eric Phillips-Horst.