LFF REVIEW: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ (2020) Blurs Fact & Fiction To Fascinating Effect

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“feels like the ultimate hangout movie”

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020) begins with a title card, which reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Truth is up for debate in the Ross brothers’ semi-documentary social experiment of a movie, which chronicles the closing night of a bar called The Roaring 20s, and the drunken shindigs that its patrons get up to as they toast its final shift.

Though it feels like a verité-style piece that simply captures one night in a real bar in Las Vegas, the film is far more constructed than that. Whilst the drink and drugs are 100% real, the bar is actually in New Orleans, and remains open. The cast are all non-actors (except for one), and deliver completely unscripted dialogue – but they were assembled after hundreds of interviews and conversations that the directors had with people at various local pubs.

These blurred lines between fact and fiction make Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets a strange viewing experience. The heart swells at the snippets of care and community spirit between these drunken revellers, but is deflated a little at realising these people are strangers, and the history they appear to share is the result of a facilitated meeting, rather than authentic connection. 

Constructing the drama in this way means the cast are both acting and not, and raises fascinating questions about who we pretend to be and the stories we tell when the drinks are flowing and our inhibitions lowered. But the method becomes tiresome eventually. Essentially watching a collection of oddballs getting increasingly bladdered on screen, it often feels as though this would be best enjoyed with a tipple in hand, journeying into drunken oblivion alongside them.

There are standouts in this non-professional ensemble; barmaid Shay is magnetic as she attempts to combine managing the bar with dodging doting men and keeping an eye on son Tra. Veteran Bruce seems standoffish at first, but opens up as the night wears on, getting tearful as he talks about how he fought for a country that doesn’t seem to care about him anymore. Most prominent is probably Michael, the only actor amongst them. He plays a kind of alcoholic, washed-up version of himself, raising a glass with almost everyone who enters, and monologuing about how “there is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more because he’s in a bar”. 

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets feels like the ultimate hangout movie. One place, one night, lots of people. You can practically feel the floor sticking to your shoes, the damp bar from beer spills, the heat from bodies around you, the echoes of slurred words as you float past all the pockets of life that can be found in a place like this. There’s singing, and dancing, and flirting, and ‘let’s take this outside’, drunken stumbles and heart-to-hearts, and the quiet, lonely period that comes at the end of the night after everyone else knew when to leave, but you stayed too long. 

“It was fun while it lasted”, one character remarks. So too was the fantasy that this piece of constructed reality is as true as it feels.

Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross

Producers: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross, Michael Gottwald, Chere Thurlot

Cast: Shay Walker, Peter Elwell, Michael Martin

Image via The New York Times