Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
2020, NR, 98 min. Directed by Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross. Starring Peter Elwell, Michael Martin, Shay Walker, Cheryl Fink, Marc Paradis, John Nerichow, Rikki Redd, Pam Harper, Trevor Moore, Bruce Hadnot.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 24, 2020
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been knocking back a few more than usual lately. And why not? Pundits and palavers, doom-sayers and truth-tellers have been rattling on about the end of the whole shebang since our world began but this time, right here, right now, it feels like maybe, possibly, probably they’ve nailed it. The end is nigh, or near enough to warrant one for my baby and one more for the road. (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, that is.)
Documentarian siblings the Ross brothers have perfectly captured the current global zeitgeist in all its woefully shocking abruptness with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which premiered at what might as well be, for now, the last Sundance Film Festival ever. How they managed to presage the present is a puzzler in itself, but this pseudo-cinema verité film about the final long day’s journey into nowheresville for the besotted, bedraggled, and bewildered patrons of a Las Vegas dive bar dubbed the Roaring Twenties is a miraculous nightmare filled to the brim with heart and overflowing with deliriously sloppy soul.
Here’s the thing, though. The Roaring Twenties isn’t in Las Vegas. It’s an actual bar in New Orleans, and the cast of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets are real people, mostly non-actors portraying variations of themselves, drinking real booze and acting like it’s the end of their world as they know it and come hell or daylight they’re going to do their best to feel fine. It’s a melancholy affair alight with tipsy camaraderie and desperate good cheer beset by the unspoken fact that this dingy bar they call home is about to be no more. For these Bukowskian wastrels and dipsomaniacal drunkards, oblivion is the object because, well, what else is there for them after tonight? The harsh and unforgiving light of day is no friend of theirs. As a metaphor for our times – the film itself is set in 2016 and thus front-loaded with all that that implies – the Ross brothers have crafted a doozy.
Convivial bartender Marc oversees a motley crew consisting firstly of grey fox Michael, a Replacements regular who treats the joint like it’s his own (or only) home and whose face is a roadmap of bar ditch bad breaks and busted up dreams. Then there’s old Lowell, first seen ambling into the bar, apparently at dawn, as Buck Owens' “Big in Vegas” plays over the shot. Night bartender Shay worries about her stoner son and his troublesome buddies, gloomy war vet Bruce finds solace in A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” and as the bar fills up and the booze flows freely the party – a wake, actually – moves out into the parking lot for an impromptu fireworks display. It’s the utterly wasted Michael who digs deep and sums it all up, slurring “There’s nothing more boring than a guy in a bar who used to do stuff but who doesn’t do stuff … because he’s in a bar.” Wisdom from on low! At one point someone brings out a celebratory cake with the inscription “This Place Sucked Anyway.”
The Ross brothers trompe l’oeil scenario is occasionally messed around with. Camera crew can be seen reflected in the bar’s mirror, and the occasional shot of a black-and-white television that only seems to show old film noirs are weirdly apropos touches. Shot minus a real script, the directors instead employed predetermined staged moments for their characters to latch on to and then run as wild as they saw fit. Cassavetes would dig this like crazy and so, I think, would the late Austinite filmmaker Eagle Pennell, whose Last Night at the Alamo trod similarly loaded ground.
As befits a real dive bar, music plays as much a role in the film as the cast, and the Ross brothers clearly know when to hold ‘em – Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” plays more than once – and when to dial it down to focus on the touching intimacy of soused confessionals. A bar like this, after all, acts as a valid surrogate for the Catholic confessional, acts of contrition and all.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is as real as it gets, a snapshot stolen from the very year everything turned to shit. It’s a masterpiece. To quote Dashiell Hammett’s tippling couple Nick and Nora Charles, “How do you feel?” “Terrible. I must’ve gone to bed sober.”
For an interview with the directors, visit austinchronicle.com/screens.