Film Reviews

‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ Is Booze-Fuelled Poetry

Ross Brothers offer a fascinating hybrid elegy for watering holes


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
(USA, 98 min.)
Dir. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross

I haven’t been to a bar in four months thanks to this ongoing pandemic. However, as much as the Summer of ’Rona had me itching for a cold beer on a patio, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets totally killed my buzz. This Sundance sensation by the Ross Brothers (Contemporary Color, Western) offers a booze-fuelled salute to dive bars as the patrons of The Roaring 20s bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas (ish) drink from open to close. The Rosses observe the drinkers’ relationships as they devolve from celebratory camaraderie to bitter resentment. The casually revelatory drama could inspire overdue sobriety.

The patrons, beginning with faded artist Michael, appear at The Roaring 20s for what is advertised as its final night. The Rosses could easily be filming any night in any dive bar in America. These seasoned drinkers interact with casual familiarity, providing comfort and company to one another as they get their fix. They babble, rant, and bicker. Not much happens in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, but this film offers one of those strange experiences that are simultaneously about both nothing and everything.

Like the slurry speech of a pickled barfly, though, Bloody Nose mixes its words and doesn’t always make sense. One emerges from it as if awakening from the foggy haze of a hangover. A more cohesive portrait of the drunken rambling forms as one retraces the film in retrospect. Watching people get hammered isn’t nearly as fun as knocking back drinks with one’s friends, but the Rosses hold up a sobering mirror to audiences. It’s a stark portrait of alcohol’s ability to consume a person’s life. The film is profoundly sad as the drinking buddies turn on a dime when one drink too many triggers a mood swing or a near-fight. People say and do stupid things, like flash their breasts or, in the choice line of the film, proclaim “I fuck well and I do shit” while stumbling out from the bar.

However, whether one is as drunk as one of the film’s barflies or as sober as a judge, one can probably discern a few peculiarities throughout the evening. Nobody pays for drinks. The chronology of the movies that play on the TV (more on those later) add up to far more than a single night. Some great shot/reverse shots of conversations capture both sides of the bar a little too seamlessly, yet the combination of these elements create a semblance of life that seems true.

The cameras observe other elements of the bar, like tacky signs about cigarette butts that evoke the familiarity of nights out in crummy dives. The farewell cake reads, “This Place Sucked Anyways,” capturing the tongue-in-cheek humour of the farewell. Classic movies play on the television in lieu of the usual sports games. The programming choices hardly feel like accidents when a black and white scene features Russian sailors observing maggots on a piece of meat, daring viewers of Bloody Nose to note the ugliness before their eyes. (How many dive bars screen Battleship Potemkin?) A clip from A Night to Remember playfully salutes the downhill night to end all nights for The Roaring 20s, while a scene of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits poignantly evokes sympathy for characters marinating on the periphery of society.

The ruse of Bloody Nose is that it, too, is a lot like a Hollywood movie. It has characters, a set, and a set-up. The Roaring 20s isn’t closing. It’s not even in Vegas. Heck, it’s not even a real bar.

The Ross brothers execute a stroke of hybrid documentary brilliance by creating their ode to watering holes through a fictional bar they created in Louisiana. Drawing upon their research of dive bars throughout America, particularly on the periphery of Las Vegas where the film is set, they populate the film with true seasoned drinkers culled from an extensive casting process. The drinks and the conversations inspired by them, however, are both real and genuine, while the cinema verité aesthetic captures the interactions between the drunks seamlessly. In short, the Rosses brought a bunch of heavy drinkers to bar to see what they would do.

What follows is a fascinating blurring of boundaries. The Rosses create something akin to the parable of the Ship of Theseus for documentary: if one takes a documentary and replaces each element with a piece of fiction, is it still a documentary? Some doc hybrid predecessors to Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, like Actress, The Act of Killing, or London Road, find truth in performance by injecting drama within documentary. The conceit of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, however, explores the authenticity of human behaviour. It doesn’t really matter if the bar is real or the premise is a sham. All liquored up and freed of their inhibitions, the characters of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets behave like any old drunk with a few in the bag, revealing the best and basest elements of human behaviour while under the influence. The film forges a unique space between fiction and non-fiction, achieving a form of booze-fuelled poetry that one rarely sees.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is now playing at Hot Docs Cinema’s virtual theatre.

For a second take on the film, read Marc Glassman’s review.