St. Louis has long called itself the “Gateway to the West,” but that town and its surrounding Ozarks might more accurately be the Mustache of the South, a much larger thing's mostly presentable upper tip that nonetheless always has a few crumbs in it. As a nation, we've railed at that mustache a lot in the last year, especially its crumbs: those white people on TV and in Riverfront Times comment threads who loudly committed themselves to the proposition that police gunning down black teens is reasonable. Then there's this whole thing with the feds investigating the Cardinals for hacking the Astros — and damned if those shoot-first white folks aren't suddenly concerned about due process.
Debra Granik's superb documentary Stray Dog isn't about St. Louis or race. A stirring, surprising, empathic portrait of the life of a Harley-riding trailer-court king outside of Branson, Missouri, it is often about facial hair — bristling, sink-clogging tumbleweeds of it. But, more pressingly, it's about American diversity, even among white folks. It's a beautiful film of lives patiently observed, of motor-home ritual and motorcycle processionals, of biker dudes speaking to therapists and buddies about their PTSD trauma, of a vital Missouri man-mountain singing the Outlaw Country hit “Amanda” as he drives — but changing the lyric to honor Anita, the light of his life, the wife who's flown back home to Mexico City to see to her two teenage sons.
That man-mountain is Ron Hall, the over-60 proprietor of the At Ease RV Park, a good ol' boy who has raised as much hell as he's going to get to and now sits in front of a desktop computer trying to get through levels of Rosetta Stone Spanish. Granik follows Hall and Anita for a year or so, around the trailer park, on the road and even into Mexico. Hall lives for bonfires, his four dogs, the granddaughter just out of high school who's working two jobs but having her wages garnished. He's sustained by the camaraderie of his vet and Harley friends. He gives them leeway on late rent, and when a couple guys razz him for immediately wiping up some spilled coffee grounds, he brags on his wife: “You sons-of-bitches, you see what I sleep with — you'd keep the floor clean, too!”
But he also wakes up screaming, some nights, troubled by dreams of Vietnam. Hall and his friends dress in skulls and flags, death and nationalism, but they only truly seem to believe in the promise of the former anymore. They attend ceremonies honoring Vietnam P.O.W./M.I.A.'s and the funerals of veterans — of their war and others — forming on their motorcycles a mighty, unofficial honor guard, making it the most solemn of duties to be there, to show that someone still cares. Early in the film, Hall and wife convoy with other biker vets to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. There, in the dark, his face reflected back in black granite, Hall hunts down a name that means the world to him. “You deserved better, brother,” he says, before weeping. Anita hugs him.
Granik, director of Winter's Bone, captures scenes of rare power. We see that overworked granddaughter promising to get it together and go to college — and then, some months later, pregnant by a man she knows Hall won't approve of. We see Hall meeting with his therapist, explaining how it would dishonor the men he killed in Vietnam ever to forgive himself — he lost himself there, he says, and did things no man should. Hall himself is as good a listener as Granik or his therapist, a priceless skill he demonstrates on that ride to Washington, when he commiserates with a young man shaken up by tours in our recent desert wars. The man unburdens himself, and Hall says things like “I know it,” “my man” and “I hope you have a good shrink, my brother — it makes a difference.” The sequence is something like Hall's computer Spanish lessons, but about something bigger: Watch, imitate and you'll learn how truly to help the people you meet.
Meeting people is Stray Dog's heart. Hall meets many, often helping them out, either by listening or — in the case of an African-American mom who has lost a daughter and a grandkid in recent wars — popping over to fix up some rotten flooring. Then, late in the film, we meet Anita's sons, who emigrate to Missouri and are surprised to discover there's no city, no town, nothing but highways. Hall gives them a trailer and allows them some months to build up their English before they're expected to find work. He throws a cookout to welcome them, and the neighbors take them for what they are: nice kids who look a little uncomfortable, and whom we hope — through Anita's attentive upbringing — can lift themselves out of the prevailing local poverty. Of course, not everyone knows what to make of them. “Bet you're sure glad to get out of there, huh?” one guy asks, as if everyone agrees that highway life is the best of all possibles.
But he's an exception. Most everyone in Stray Dog gets that their lives are not some universal norm — that bikes and trailers are a way of living, not the way. That granddaughter even vows to get out. Stray Dog gets to a truth about white America — and almost anyone anyplace. Hall's friends may have odd ideas about Mexico, or Mexicans, or most other people different from them. But, once they actually meet, once someone like Hall has everyone At Ease, folks tend to like one another. I'm thankful for the chance to meet Hall.
STRAY DOG | Directed by Debra Granik | Still Rolling Productions | Music Hall