The latest film from documentarian brothers Bill and Turner Ross (Tchoupitoulas) is a loving look at the last night of a Las Vegas dive bar. Or is it? Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets looks for all the world like a fly-on-the-wall study of inebriated sad sacks, observed with compassion and humanity and a flair for real-life drama. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The unusual title sequence, superimposed over soft-hued footage of one regular making his way gradually to the Roaring 20’s bar, lists credits in a retro font that evokes ‘70s independent cinema, and the film lives up to that conceit and inspiration. Beginning with the morning shift, when day-drinkers start showing up before 11 a.m., the Rosses focus on aging barflies who feel entirely comfortable in the confined space of this old-school dive, if not with their own souls.

It’s a varied demographic, to a point; Michael, who ends up framing the film and is one of the most prominent figures, is the first customer in the door, and he shaves in the bar’s tiny bathroom. Bruce is a Black Vietnam veteran, his pronunciation so idiosyncratic that he has to repeat a favorite maxim several times before his bar-mates can understand what he’s saying. Another regular, an older woman, boasts vividly of her 60-year-old figure.

Throughout the film, the Rosses alight on the changing dynamic among customers, listening in on one trivial discussion while other regulars share more meaningful moments. A television shows local news reports about a Vegas souvenir shop shutting its doors, which leads to talk of the changing commercial landscape, while at other times a screen behind the bar plays “Jeopardy” or The Battleship Potemkin. As the night shift comes in, teenage boys circle the area on their bikes, and one of them comes into the tavern to check in with her mother, tending bar.

In a little more than 90 minutes, Bloody Nose is the perfect distillation of bar life, compassionate eyes watching and—crucially—listening to lonely misfits whose lives are more tragedy than comedy, interacting to music cues that are about what you’d expect: Michael Jackson, Kool &the Gang (“Celebration,” of course), and, in what may be the film’s most magical sequence, Sophie B. Hawkins. “Damn! I Wish I was Your Lover” plays as the bar nears its final hour, and the remaining celebrants, wielding sparklers, head out en masse to the street for one final reverie. Here the Rosses switch to the bar’s surveillance cameras, with more unfocused images (and the sight of Michael remaining inside, alone with his thoughts and a drink) turning this paean to nightlife into something like poetry.

In fact, the film frequently seems too good; certain elements feel positively theatrical; one wonders how much coverage the Rosses needed to get to extract such dramatic moments (their first cut was reportedly four and a half hours), the film seems like something out of Cassavetes, and one starts to imagine what the Rosses might accomplish with actors in a dramatic setting. Well, guess what—that is in fact, sort of what they accomplished. The film doesn’t state this conceit, but the quote that opens the film’s first section, “We hold these truth to be self-evident,” turns out to be tongue-in-cheek. The denizens of the Roaring 20’s were real people hired to play themselves, set loose on an 18-hour shoot in a bar that was in fact located in New Orleans, the directors’ home base.

Bloody Nose is a kind of fictional non-fiction, and the filmmakers don’t clue you in on that. But that makes their work even more impressive, especially given the completely naturalistic performances. And despite the fact that the film is to some degree staged, it’s not scripted, and there are indeed moments that no scriptwriter could have come up with. The cast members all immerse themselves in their roles. Michael, it turns out, is Michael Martin, who once played a homeless person in a Will Ferrell movie. Yet the most heartbreaking turn goes to Bruce Hadnot as the Vietnam vet; when he leaves the bar where we think he has been a longtime patron for what we think is the last time, his tears look completely genuine, and it’s devastating. In fact, it might come as a relief to dig around and find out that the Roaring 20’s crew were not hurtling towards some lonesome oblivion, though who knows how they have spent their time during lockdown. That may well be the film’s message: that, damaged and tormented as we are, we need each other, and when people from all different backgrounds and walks of life come together to socialize, it’s truly beautiful.

Note: this review has been modified to clarify that the bar patrons seen here are real people playing themselves.

The perfect distillation of bar life, compassionate eyes watching and—crucially—listening to lonely misfits whose lives are more tragedy than comedy.
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