‘Stray Dog’ Review: Captivating Character Study of War-Torn Man Trying to Rebuild

By  · Published on June 18th, 2014

Debra Granik

Ronnie Hall’s nickname may be Stray Dog, but he is anything but a stray left on his own. Debra Granik’s documentary, Stray Dog, shows how friends and family surround Hall, but he still struggles to keep himself from feeling alone and displaced. A Vietnam veteran, Hall clearly carries scars and wounds that may never fully heal, but he works every day to better his life and the lives of those around him.

At first glance, Hall looks like a tough biker, but it becomes clear that Hall’s biker “gang” is an extension of his family and a community he (and others like him) need. Stray Dog follows Hall and his wife, Alicia, as they take to the road to travel with their fellow bikers and vets making their way to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. This is a yearly tradition for Hall, who is well-liked and well-known among the group, but the simple life he has carved out for himself continues to grow when his granddaughter gets pregnant and Alicia’s two sons, Jesus and Angel, come to live with them.

Granik takes an interesting approach with Stray Dog by not including any interviews with the documentary’s subjects. She instead lets the film become a silent character study of Hall in his day-to-day life that speaks volumes without needing additional commentary. Hall claims he is not good at giving advice, but the conversations he has with his fellow vets say more than any interview ever could.

But Stray Dog starts to lose its footing when Jesus and Angel are introduced because it takes the focus away from Hall and his struggles to find his place in his ever changing world. It’s clear Hall relates to his step-sons as they struggle to feel at home in America, but those interactions end up being less powerful and moving in comparison to the ones he has with those he more directly identifies with. Hall has created a moving and amazing family, but as the heart of the film, Stray Dog is at it’s best when it is focused on him.

Despite the guilt and pain he carries, Hall is incredibly giving and selfless, a trait that radiates off the screen with no explanation needed. For someone who unabashedly wears his heart on his sleeve, it may seem strange that he looks like (and runs with) an intimidating biker gang. But as Hall swaps stories with a fellow vet, he laughs at the idea that former soldiers are drawn to riding bikes because as soldiers you get “addicted to adrenaline.” It’s during these simple revelations that the film shines by revealing Hall’s self-awareness and honesty thanks to Granik’s fly-on-the-wall approach.

Stray Dog is an impressive documentary (and a major accomplishment for Granik) because goes beyond a simple a portrait of a man and becomes something inherently inspirational. Hall is someone you may dismiss at first glance, but by the end of the film viewers will find themselves endlessly captivated by the man he is, and the man he is trying to be.

The Upside: Impressive and captivating character study told without the need of additional commentary and interviews

The Downside: Pacing slows slightly when narrative shifts its focus from Hall to his stepsons

On the Side: Stray Dog is Granik’s first documentary, but keep an eye out for one of her well-known feature films whose poster makes an appearance in one of Stray Dog’s scenes…