Debra Granik made the great film Winter's Bone a few years back, so I was eager to see her follow-up. Alas, Stray Dog is so dull I could barely stay awake.
While Ron Hall seems to have lived a paradigmatic Middle American life, Granik's "fly on the wall" approach fails to illuminate any of it. And her adamant refusal to treat Ron as a "character" and give him an arc, turns others on the periphery into cinematic hostages. (JLH: 2.5/5)
Review by Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner
In 2010, filmmaker Debra Granik released a terrific little film called Winter's Bone--her second feature--which Granik and her writing partner Anne Rosellini based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. It was incredibly successful in Indie terms, receiving four Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor), plus two Gotham Awards (Best Film and Best Ensemble Cast) and two Independent Spirit Awards (Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor), as well as an assortment of additional honors.
Then Debra Granik disappeared from view while her teenage star Jennifer Lawrence--an actress who was barely known by anyone when Granik cast her as "Ree Dolly"--went on to become one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
I loved Winter's Bone, so I have waited a long time to see Granik's follow-up. I went into Stray Dog expecting to love it... But sad to say, I could barely stay awake...
Ron Hall aka "Stray Dog" appeared in a small but critical role in Winter's Bone, playing the dangerous Ozark patriarch "Thrump Milton." Looking back however, it now seems that in that case, less was more. A full length documentary about Hall--with a 98 minute runtime--quickly exhausted my interest. I am baffled by the big buzz and notable nominations for Stray Dog. A 2015 Independent Spirit Award nomination in the Best Documentary category... Really? Why?
It is certainly true that Ron Hall seems to have lived a paradigmatic Middle American life: He grew up in rural Missouri, went off to fight in Vietnam, came home with nightmares, and has spent the rest of his life carrying on. But Granik's "fly on the wall" approach fails to illuminate any of this.
And so we see Ron and his friends at home and on periodic trips to honor the friends--especially military friends--lost along the way. There is some talk about the new generation of vets, but I'll be damned if I understand how Ron really feels about the military and/or the latest round of post-Vietnam wars.
To be blunt: I picture Ron walking into a voting booth, but then I have no clue what happens next. From all external indications, one would guess he votes straight Republican, but Granik's point seems to be that we shouldn't judge "this book" by its "cover." So maybe Ron votes Democrat or at least splits his ticket sometimes? It sure would be nice to be a "fly on the wall" while Ron and his buddies have an actual discussion about issues of international importance--after all, they are all citizens of the USA and therefore they are voters--but no such luck.
Granik avoids anything potentially controversial. Instead of engaging our minds, she goes right for the heart, feeding us cinematic Soft Serve aka "Gerber's Vanilla." Ron plays with his dogs. Ron bounces babies on his knee. Are they grandchildren or great-grandchildren...? I think the later, but I don't dare swear to it. We spend a great deal of time observing the tender relationship between Ron and his wife Alicia, but I'm not sure how long they have been married, or how many wives--if any--Ron had before Alicia.
Are women-troubles, multiple partners, and abandoned children part of Ron's past? Is that why Ron--now a Santa Clause clone with a big belly and a lush white beard--is so determined to bring Alicia's sons under his ample wing? Alicia's sons are Mexican, with only a minimal command of English. Ron dutifully attempts to learn Spanish online and drives around parroting Spanish phrases, so I guess he gets points for trying, but he hasn't gotten too far.
Ron acts like he is doing something wonderful by bringing these young men north, but when they are alone together, Angel and Jesus--Angel and Jesus!--sound like they would much rather be back in Mexico City. Since we know so little about how Ron and Alicia became a couple--including how long she has been away from her children, how she ended up in rural Missouri, where she first met Ron, how long they have been together--I found myself looking at Alicia's sons as if they were hostages in a weird cinematic experiment on The Hawthorne Effect.
I think we're supposed to think that we--urban liberals--are biased against people like Ron. I think we're supposed to think that we--urban liberals--see an old coot in biker gear and make prejudicial assumptions. So maybe audiences at film festivals are determined to like Ron just to prove the point about their own open mindedness? Stray Dog wins awards in Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Sarasota, and Minneapolis, not to mention London and Zurich!!!
Well call me what you will, but I am just not drinking this Kool-Aid
© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/10/15)
Top Photo: Three Cheers for the Red, White & Blue?
Middle Photo: Ron mourning one of his fallen brothers.
Bottom Photo: Ron at home with Alicia.
Photo Credits: © 2014 Life At Ease, LLC
Q: Does Stray Dog pass the Bechdel Test?
Although Ron's wife Alicia is a constant presence, I can't think of a single moment when I saw her interacting with another woman onscreen...
On the other hand, I can't honestly say I saw every single minute of Stray Dog... I had a hard time concentrating, and it is quite possible that I dozed a bit...
Do I hold myself responsible? In this case no. I saw Stray Dog at an AM screening after a good night's sleep and a nice cup of coffee. If Debra Granik was unable to hold my interest, I honestly think that reflects poorly on her decision to take the "fly on the wall" approach rather than treat Ron as a "character" and give him an arc.
At this point, all I can do is be honest about my own reaction. Readers: I was bored to tears