With her new film, “Stray Dog,” Debra Granik makes clear exactly what she’s interested in as a filmmaker, announcing a surprising yet assured sense of where she’s going artistically. The film, which will be screened at Vogelstein on Wednesday, Sept. 24 and will follow with a conversation with Granik, is a modestly-scaled documentary. It focuses its lens on a Vietnam War veteran and Missouri resident. The film, notable for its generosity of spirit and lack of judgment, is keen to understand and make more complicated our perception of such a vivid and seemingly cartoonish character and reveals the vulnerabilities that lie beneath his impenetrably macho exterior.
It’s telling that the talented filmmaker chose this project after her last film, “Winter’s Bone.” “Bone” was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize, being met with unanimously ecstatic critical praise upon its theatrical release, introducing lead actress Jennifer Lawrence to mainstream popular culture and ultimately going on to be nominated for four Academy Awards in major categories (though not Granik for Best Director, overlooking her work only to recognize the far inferior talents of David O. Russell for “The Fighter” and Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech”). Granik’s decision to follow up her previous work with a tiny, no-frills documentary effort is proof of her integrity and revealing of her artistic pursuits and callings.
Both films, despite their being centered by fully engaging lead characters, are nonetheless most concerned with examining close-knit communities and their conflicted yet beautiful way of function.
Like Robert Altman before her, a director she strikingly echoes in her latest film in a usage of voice-over dialogue that naturalistically overlaps with images from a subsequent scene, Granik is fascinated by the customs and procedures that bring people together. Along these thematic lines are depictions of her lead character and his friends standing in a circle passing around a jar of moonshine or the solemn, almost otherworldly POW MIA ceremonies Ronnie frequently attends, the latter gatherings characterized by singing, chanting and large, symbolic flames lit and extinguished. Granik makes us privy to the traditions and habits that bind together the individual family unit at the core of the film.
In 2005, Granik released her debut film, still the most harrowing in her filmography and, predictably, her weakest effort. “Down to the Bone,” which also made an impression at Sundance and launched the career of a prominent female actor in Vera Farmiga, concerned a struggling mother and unhappy wife battling addiction and the difficulties of a harsh winter and an even harsher economy in the area of upstate New York.
That film and “Winter’s Bone” devote their cinematic attentions to process and procedure in a similar fashion as the later “Stray Dog,” but for divergent purposes. In her first film, Granik’s camera is honed in on the completion of tasks such as the cleaning of Farmiga’s Irene’s workspace or the juxtaposition of the preparation of crushed pills in one room and Irene, tempted, but resistantly scraping residual meat leftover from dinner in the kitchen.
In a detailed close-up, the director demonstrates the devastating role habit plays in one woman’s life while allowing the attentiveness to these procedural details to build excruciating tension. “Winter’s Bone[’s]” best scene achieves a comparable feat. Set in a bar/community gathering place in nighttime, our gaze flits between various locals as they play banjos and other bluegrass instruments in haunting silence as an uneasy Lawrence makes her way through the crowded space. This is Granik’s way of gorgeously furthering her rich portrait of a very specific place while using her mounting atmospheric observations to heighten the tension of her lead character’s quest and the urgency of her efforts, and, in turn, the film’s gritty narrative.
Granik’s three movies, in succession, act as a tour through a crumbling modern America; from a desolate, wintry New York to the unforgiving, old-west individualism of mountainous Arkansas, to the idealistic but broken deep south in “Stray Dog[’s]” Missouri.
“Down to the Bone” is rife with dated iconography reminiscent of an antiquated patriotism: large, kitschy American flag cakes, repeated shots of signs emblazoned with “Proud to be an American,” symbols that contribute its intelligent central conceit, something that doesn’t become clear until we are settled into the world of the film. Two-thirds of the way into the running time, we realize that the lead character is seeking help and rehab for her addiction purely because it’s an economic hardship. Her using isn’t visibly damaging to her family life or job—in fact, it’s explicitly made clear that being high made her a better and more efficient worker before she cleaned up. This revelation is a refreshing take on a cliché drug abuse narrative and popular conceptions thereof, as well as a larger commentary on the economic ravage of everyday Americans’ lives.
“Stray Dog[’s]” vision of the state of the union is one stained by a bloody history of violence. Many scenes movingly evince the way Ronnie’s time in the military has come to define his emotional well-being and still dominates his tormented thoughts and mind, even almost 50 years later.
Through confessionals and conversations with other veterans, we begin to fully grasp, in a broad sense, the toll of war on its participants and the damage it can do to a country and the people who live there.