Dog Days, by David Bax
It’s been about five years since Debra Granik’s astounding second feature, Winter’s Bone, was released but it seems she hasn’t moved much, at least geographically. Her new film, and her first documentary, Stray Dog, takes place in the same region of Southwestern Missouri as her last.
This time around, her subject is not nearly as terrifying as the backwoods meth murderers of Winter’s Bone. Ronnie Hall, the Stray Dog himself, though, may initially seem almost as intimidating, especially to liberal city slickers like myself. His tattoos and leather, motorcycles and guns, trailer parks and moonshine ways may lead to certain assumptions by those of us who spent more of their teenage years in the drama club than the wood shop. We’re smart, though, and we know those assumptions are as wrong and unfair as the ones made about us. Granik, however, doesn’t want us to just know. She wants us to understand. And she does that not by telling us, ever, but by showing us. Stray Dog is never strident; only unfailingly, warmly humanist in its depiction.
Ronnie as we see him is a human being like the rest of us. Yet, like the rest of us, he is an individual who is only like himself. The things that make him up come not just from his beliefs and the area in which he was born. They come from his experiences and his willingness to learn from others, not to mention his willingness to pass on to others, like his granddaughter, the things he has learned. So, yes, Ronnie is a biker and a hunter. He’s also a veteran, a husband, a friend, a patient and a student of life who is not done studying. We should all follow his example.
Stray Dog is proof that the universal lies within the specific. By simply spending time with one man with our eyes and ears open, we can learn untold volumes about the world at large. Granik’s film is one of the best in years.