In 2004 director Debra Granik burst onto the independent feature film scene with Down to the Bone, which launched the career of Vera Farmiga and then showed she was not a flash in the pan with 2010’s Winter’s Bone starring Jennifer Lawrence, a film that earned four Oscar nominations. It was a tense, tight film that showed Granik’s talent at storytelling. In that film she cast Harley Davidson biker/Vietnam vet Ronnie Hall in a small part. Obviously the man made an impression on the screenwriter/director as she has now made her first documentary film about him and his life.
It is a film about U.S. war veterans told from a different perspective. Once again it is a look at the daily life of an individual this time it is an older man who fought in the Vietnam War who loves small dogs and riding his Harley. Sixty-something Ronnie Hall runs an RV park in southern Missouri. He is a man trying to move on from the mental scars left on him by his participation in Vietnam and making a life with his wife Alicia, a woman who recently moved to the United States from Mexico. At first glance he is a little intimidating with his big burly, tattooed body, leather biker vest and bandana on his head. Some of the first scenes of the film are of him chain smoking, chatting with his pals while drinking some moonshine. You have him slotted as a potentially dangerous biker who likes guns. This categorization does him a disservice and could not be further from the truth.
It is only once you hear him speak, I mean really listen to him you realize that he is a big hearted man who will be patient over payment of rent from his RV residents and will go out of his way to help any veteran anyway he can. Basically he is a big teddy bear. A teddy bear who has a dark side due to all the horrors he saw and a few he committed while in Vietnam. When he first came back from the way like other soldiers he felt he no longer fit in (a feeling that hasn’t entirely disappeared) and no longer recognized the country he grew up in. It led to some poor decisions and violence. Now he uses riding his Harley and seeing a therapist to keep his head on straight. He channels his energy into more positive things like helping fellow Veterans.
He and Alicia along with hundreds of other bikers embark on a cross country trek to Washington, D.C. to pay tribute to fallen soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial. Once that is done and life settles down Ronnie admits on camera that he, because of his war experience, is a little bit of an adrenaline junkie and his everyday life bores him a little. That is part of the reason he is always looking for someone to help or the next Veteran ceremony to attend. At the end of the film what fulfills this need is his struggle to help Alicia get her two teenage sons into the country.
The deeper you get into the 98 minute film the more you realize that Debra Granik was trying to make the documentary as authentic as she possibly could. She doesn’t use any of the normal documentary tricks like interviews with the subject, narration or allowing her biases creep into the telling of this man’s story. He and his life speaks for itself. Besides the war veteran aspect she was also trying to let us be flies on the wall for a slice of life that many of us don’t know thing one about – bikers. We are also let into his “other” life with his daughter and teenage granddaughter from a previous marriage. Ronnie was married to a Korean woman he met while on one of his two tours. They live nearby him in Missouri and he tries to delve out grandfatherly advice to his granddaughter trying to discourage her from moving in with her McDonald’s working boyfriend and staying in school.
You see this man, who has every reason to be a harsh and irreparably damaged human, do one caring and good thing after another. There is no “hey look at me” about his goodness; that is just simply who he is. Granik never allows her eyes to stray from the prize which is showing us a simple slice of Americana. A film about your truly average and yet not unexceptional or boring Americans.