BFI LFF 2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets review – intoxicating ode to the American dive bar

This fascinating vérité film about a Las Vegas watering hole and its patrons blurs the lines between fact and fiction to ingenious effect

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the finest American documentary of the year – if we can call it that. This fascinating, freewheeling vérité film by Ohio brothers Bill and Turner Ross allegedly sets out to chronicle the last day and night at Roaring 20’s, a Las Vegas dive bar living on the verge of closure. But not before one final blowout, where its regular patrons come together to reminisce, romance, and fight their way through the wake for a place to call home.

Yet despite the barfly-on-the-wall manner in which the events of the evening are captured, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is in fact a construction. Roaring 20’s is a real bar – only it's located in New Orleans and shows no sign of closing down. Instead these disparate drinkers were gathered up by the Ross Brothers from far and wide and tasked with playing versions of themselves over the length of two 18-hour-long shoots. Some dramatic inventions drag a kind of structure to proceedings, but for the most part, anything goes.

From the Albert Einstein look-alike, to the tripped-out Aussie who sits motionless at the bar, to the bartender fending off advances while checking in on her definitely not drinking teenage son, micro-transactions are captured and played off one another with the grace of a boozy ballet. Of course, this fresco would wind up a fracas without a central figure, and that's where Michael (Michael Martin) comes in. He's a failed actor who essentially lives in the bar, ruminating on his regrets while attempting to offer up what passes for wisdom to the younger clientele.

The shape of Michael’s arc – or at least, his realisation that he is at an end of things – imbues Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets with the spirit of a Eugene O’Neill drama. And with its cursed booze-hounds and its sheer durational quality, The Iceman Cometh is an obvious touchstone. Yet exhilarating where it could have been exhausting, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets comes and goes like the best kind of drunken night: a haze of adventure and blurred memories, but a sense of it being all worthwhile despite the hangover.

Part of what makes it all so engaging to sit through beyond the experiment is the ideological warfare the Ross Brothers capture. Set in 2016, shorthand for America Year Zero, the patrons’ anarchic, end-of-the-world spirit gains a political dimension that is never patronising or cloying. Brief discussions of Making America Great Again come over unforced, while an ever-playing TV by the door permanently fixes the 24-hour news cycle to the back of one’s mind. This bar, their institution, is beyond the precipice. America was too. It still is.

Without descending to the aesthetics of below-the-breadline misery that haunt The Florida Project or Kajillionaire, this is also a film that actually understands what poverty looks like. Spending when you don’t want to, on something that only feels good for a minute, and then picking up the pieces tomorrow. The red and golden hues that bounce from the jukebox, reflecting in pint glasses, are entrancing, but impermanent. Bloody Nose, Empty Pocket is potent, invigorating, intoxicating: the film equivalent of chugging a boilermaker.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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