Debra Granik (who had her biggest success with the film that brought Jennifer Lawrence to the public eye, Winter’s Bone) has created a winning, compelling documentary in this portrait of a Vietnam Vet/biker. Known by the moniker of the title, this vet is struggling with the ghosts of his past, the challenges of the present and the dreams of the future. He’s a contradiction from the moment you see him. He’s clad in black leather, with a do-rag wrapped around his head; he’s huge, imposing and sports a massive beard. Later, in a session with his therapist, we’ll see him break down and cry while talking about Vietnam. In a later, even more devastating scene, he allows a fellow vet to unburden himself about the horrors he saw in a prison camp. When the other man turns his face away and begins to sob, the big, imposing man reaches out a gentle hand and rests it on the weeping man’s arm. He’s a mostly uneducated man himself, but he pushes his granddaughter to go back to college, telling her it’s her only chance in the world. And he’s learning Spanish from a computer course, so he’ll be able to converse with the family of his live-in girlfriend, a Mexican immigrant. Later in the film, he’ll spend much of his time working through red tape to try to bring her two teenage sons to America to be with her; the scenes of the awkward Mexican teenagers and the brash, all-American biker attempting to connect as family are by turns painful and hilarious. He’s a guy who loves to go and shoot guns at targets; but the most exercised we see him is in a scene where he becomes genuinely angry over the fate of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. “They’ll never be the same,” he says with angry fire in his eyes, and it’s a fire of experience, of knowing the struggles of a returning soldier, the physical, emotional, financial struggles. What’s the point of this movie? Mainly, I think to capture a slice of life, what feels like real, authentic life as lived by this veteran. And to show him as a fully rounded person. It’s so easy to stereotype those we have little contact with and . . . well, I don’t know that I’ve had a conversation with a biker like this guy since high school and it’s easy to look no deeper than the surface. Granik’s film dives much, much deeper than that and her probing reveals complex, not simple, humanity. It’s a beautiful, challenging, emotionally effecting film. 4 stars.
tl;dr – minimalist documentary about a struggling Vietnam veteran is emotionally powerful and a compelling slice of life, a reminder of the shared humanity of even the most diverse of us. 4 stars.