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Finding the man behind the villain in ‘Stray Dog’

Still Rolling Productions

Many movies and TV shows rely on stereotypes. The best documentary films undermine them. In her Oscar-nominated film "Winter's Bone" (2010), Debra Granik uses the non-actor Ron Hall to powerful effect as Thump Milton, the ruthless head of a criminal clan in the Missouri Ozarks. Bearded, hulking, and with cold, merciless eyes, he's an archetypical redneck villain. Even his leather vest terrifies.

In "Stray Dog," Granik's immersive, enlightening documentary about the real Ron Hall, her subject at first seems not unlike his fictional counterpart. He rides a Harley, offers his pals moonshine, and asks how much he can get for a German Luger. He rides with packs of others who are as hirsute, tattooed, and truculent as himself.


But Granik dispels that image long before the scene where Hall advises his granddaughter to become self-reliant while a tiny orange kitten climbs on his big belly. A Vietnam veteran, he participates in memorials for his fallen comrades, attends services for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and joins hundreds of other bikers in a huge pilgrimage to the Wall in D.C., where he breaks down when he finds the name of a friend. "It was all unnecessary," he tells his therapist.

The therapist helps him with the past, but not as much as Alicia, his Mexican wife, helps with the present. She's loving and wise and tells him to use shampoo when washing his beard. Together they earn a living as owners of an RV park outside Branson, Mo., though it's clear Hall won't be making his fortune from it when he lets a tenant's rent slide. But he likes to help people, especially fellow sufferers of PTSD. Nearly five decades later, he still has nightmares about the war, and screams for help in his sleep.

Granik culled "Stray Dog" from 230 hours of intimate, unobtrusive footage. Without voice-overs or interviews or other narrative cues, it offers vignettes from Hall's life, a mosaic portrait of a part of America that is misunderstood, dismissed, exploited, and wooed by outsiders. As Alicia explains to her 19-year-old twin sons, newly arrived from Mexico City and feeling lost and disappointed, love will help them adjust. A shot near the end, of Hall singing "The Wings of a Dove" to his newborn great-granddaughter, suggests she might be right.




Directed by Debra Granik. At the Brattle. 105 minutes. Unrated (smoking, drinking, strong political opinions, disruption of preconceived ideas). In English and Spanish, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.