REVIEW: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Sundance 2020)
In America’s sociopolitical climate circling the end of 2016 is a belligerent indifference and negation from one another. An unwillingness to reminisce and rejoice now exists in a population up in arms, with reason. For some, the only place that feels like a home away from home is also the place that’ll serve up drinks with a side of familial hospitality. Filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross raise a camera and start recording the bittersweet celebration of a beloved dive bar’s last hurrah and its patrons in their semi-documentary, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.”
What transpires in the film is vérité, human moments basked in the narrative of its filmmakers, two brothers with a keen sense of the country’s true grit and compassion. Since their debut documentary, “45365,” the Ross brothers have been documenting various angles on the way people relate to one another and their surroundings, hailing from different walks of life. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” simmers in a smoky, warmly lit bar, not too huge for comfort but also on its last hinges. The film’s grand maneuver is that its filmmakers curated the prompt for people to fully relate to the person across the bar and behind the bar in raw fashion. Casting is a specific freedom in the film, in the fact that the bar is real, the narrative is fixed, but the conversations and relation these people feel are very much a real thing. The directing hand at play is an unlikely move but one that comes with genuine reward.
Within its fixed premise, the realities of its customers become an homage to bygone eras and everyone’s greatest life moments. Nestled into the structure is a genuine and emotional journey into the boozy, wholesome night where everyone gets a moment to shine before closing time. The saying, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” feels like a cruel kiss goodbye for some of the bar’s regulars. And with that, they go all out, one last time.
Perhaps the most interesting of the group is Michael, a much older man with a lively sense of self and appreciation. His night becomes the guiding voice to the film; it almost exclusively starts and ends with him. In the beginning of the film, he is seen just waking up at the counter and shaving in the bathroom as the bar crew preps the evening’s festivities. He’s seen in and out of every conversation that night, refusing to sing once the bartender whips a guitar out, and then seen through the bar mirror singing in quiet bliss. The Ross brothers determine the movement of the camera with such gracious efforts, dipping into moments between mother and son, joyous hilarity, and fly-on-the-wall seats as the next character walks into the establishment that will soon be no more.
The livelihood of the bar, called “Roaring 20s,” and its legacy rests on its faithful patrons, a kaleidoscope of wandering souls, driven workers and humble extravagances. Almost every common bar personality feels present in the moment. Every kind of person feels represented as the Ross brothers create an eclectic portrait of the Las Vegas outskirts. The film simultaneously feels like an ode to novelty and change. Times are changing and everyone is struggling in the imbalance and edge of society. As everyone finds their sense of belonging in this spot, the audience is reminded of the bittersweet and memorable places annd people they’ve ever cherished and frequented. It’s a place that accepts you, delights you and is happy to open its arms to you when life gets the best of you. For some, last call is an unpromised and bittersweet tomorrow, and “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” damn well knows it.
Directed by: Bill Ross, Turner Ross