Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Utopia releases the film on Friday, July 10.
At first glance, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” unfolds as a brilliant work of cinema verite. Bill and Turner Ross’ boozy hangout movie captures the last raucous night at the Roaring Twenties, a grimy bar on the outskirts of the Vegas strip where various inebriated outcasts bury their sorrows in a blur of anger and poetic laments. It’s late 2016, and with the presidential election about to change the world, the pub serves as a fascinating microcosm of America’s fractured, browbeaten underbelly on the verge of self-destruction.
But here’s the thing. The Roaring Twenties is in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the characters populating its interior didn’t just wander in. Though nothing in the movie acknowledges as much, the Ross brothers cast people to populate the bar, recording the drunken antics of their chosen performers throughout a debaucherous night.
The result is both a grand cinematic deception and a bold filmmaking experimentation from two of the most intriguing directors working in non-fiction today. This has been the Ross brothers’ motif since their earliest work, the expressionistic midwestern snapshot “45365” and “Tchoupitoulas,” which followed three prepubescent kids across a single meandering New Orleans night. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” sits on the same continuum, ignoring any obligation to explain its conditions and eschewing traditional documentary parameters even as it borrows much about them. The movie pretends to be a fly-on-the-wall observational tale, but in the process of assembling its remarkable homegrown universe, becomes a legitimate one anyway.
In any case, the Roaring Twenties may as well be Vegas incarnate: a cramped watering hole forged in a Hunter S. Thompson pose, baked in dusty neon lights, and doused with every grain of cheap alcohol imaginable. “The best part of waking up is bourbon in your Coke!” announces jovial daytime bartender Marc, as he pours another round for barfly Michael, a silvery-haired regular who practically treats the place like his home office. After freshening up in the bathroom, Michael regains his composure and wanders the interior with a wistful smile, gradually becoming the centerpiece of a movie fixated on what it means to find your place in a drunkard’s paradise. Michael is all too eager to drop nuggets of wisdom and reassure his compatriots that the camaraderie of the Roaring Twenties means everything to him. “I ruined myself sober!” he boasts.
Nevermind that Michael is actually Michael Martin, an established New Orleans stage actor, while Marc is local musician Marc Paradis. (Their full names appear in the credits.) Marc eventually sings and Michael refers to himself as a failed thespian, so no deep-dive research on the real people negates the sense that the movie captures some measure of reality about their true selves. The same goes for many of the colorful pariahs who populate the Roaring Twenties as the day drags on, from cheerful womanizer Lowell (Lowell Landes, whose credits include “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) to Shay (Shay Walker), who takes over the nighttime shift from Marc just in time for the hardest drinkers to enter their belligerent phase. And one thing about “Bloody Nose” requires no embellishment: These folks can drink.
The Ross brothers’ jittery camera hovers close to its subjects as day turns to night through delightful vignettes. The television buzzes away in the background, as snippets of “Jeopardy,” updates from the election, and stormy weather reports roll by and often draw the interest of the disparate crew before they drift into boisterous asides. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” works so well in traditional cinema verite terms that even the Maysles brothers would have been fooled, but remove that misleading context and it functions just as well as first-rate American naturalism straight of the Cassavetes playbook.
Like its inhabitants, the movie never sits still. However the Ross brothers plotted out their shoot, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is loaded with lovely, wistful moments that seem to materialize out of nowhere, none better than when Marc grabs his guitar for an acoustic rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” as the bar sings along. (The movie also features Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” over the credits; notably, both songs also appear in Harmony Korine movies — “Gummo” and “The Beach Bum,” respectively — and “Bloody Nose” shares some of their DNA in its reverence for world-weary souls.)
Mini-dramas congeal throughout the night: Shay’s pot-smoking son and his wayward teen pals roam the shadowy alleyways around the bar, a younger drinker accidentally overdoses on acid, and one blitzed woman decides to show off her “60-year-old titties.” Hazy arguments constantly threaten to dissolve into violence, but the underlying positivity of the bar becomes a unifying force, and the tearful admission by a mumbling veteran elevates the drama to unexpected emotional heights. By the time the whole crew heads to the parking lot for a fireworks display, the movie has become a daring love letter to the communal refuge of alcoholism.
Perhaps because of that, its best moments are tinged with melancholy. Wrapping up the night, a shit-faced Michael attempts to get deep, announcing that “there is nothing more boring than a guy in a bar who used to do stuff…who doesn’t do stuff…because he’s in a bar.” A cake presented to patrons as they celebrate their final evening reads, “This Place Sucked Anyway.”
If “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” stumbles on anything, it’s a sense of busyness to the bar that sometimes overcrowds the frame, interrupting some of its best characters just when their stories gain some measure of intrigue. But that indistinct quality fits the fuzzy milieu.
Is it a spoiler to reveal that “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” has more going on behind the scenes than it lets on? Press notes suggest the brothers are eager to discuss their method, and with good reason: The movie works overtime to make its circumstances so convincing that it’s impossible to separate fact and fiction. While no title card or end credit acknowledges the production environment, an opening scribble announces, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” which pretty much says it all.
The movie’s final stretch tiptoes into magical realism, as night turns into day and Michael heads to the door. “You don’t know nothin’ about me,” he mutters, embodying a sense of confusion that feels altogether timely — waking up from a cozy dream only to find another unwelcoming day — and taps into a kind of alienation to which much of 21st century America can relate. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” may not be the straight-faced documentary it looks like, but it’s a sober-eyed document of our times nonetheless.
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Documentary Competition.