'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Think 'Leaving Las Vegas' meets 'Cheers.'

Sundance veterans Bill and Turner Ross ('Western') turn up the jukebox and pour out a few at a Las Vegas bar where the staff and clientele enjoy the last night of trading.

Like the North Macedonian film Honeyland, which has generated delayed but deserved post-release buzz off recent awards nominations, brothers Bill and Turner Ross' latest feature Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets blurs the boundary between documentary and feature filmmaking, making for a playful, compelling sui generis work.

That said, it's very different from Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's observational study of rival apiarists. Where the latter evolved out of a classic documentary approach but produced a story so timeless it's easy to think it was slyly staged (the filmmakers insist it wasn't), Bloody Nose is just the opposite. The filmmakers didn't just chance on a fortuitously rich ready-made subject, patrons in a Las Vegas bar saying farewell to one another on its last night; they carefully cast the "characters," all playing versions of themselves, rehearsed the action and even used a location in New Orleans to stand in for the fictional Vegas bar of the film. Even the way they have left in shots where you can see the two director-producers (whose previous films include 45365, Tchoupitoulas, Western and Contemporary Color) operating the cameras themselves reflected in the mirrors behind the bar enhances the trompe l'oeil illusion that this is a work of pure verité.

Instead, it's something rather different, a woozy kind of quasi-fiction about remnants and throwbacks to an older time when barflies and career alcoholics had a seedy, romantic, Bukowskian glamour about them. It's no accident the name of dive bar is the Roaring 20s, which evokes that very Vegas nostalgia for an ersatz idea of past bacchanalian glory.

Using chyrons to show the time and occasional forays outside into the streets, or at least the parking lot, just to calibrate the angle of the light as the hours slip away, the story starts in the a.m. with the arrival of regular Michael (Michael Martin), an actor at one point, rocking up to start the morning boozing, welcomed by a genial barman who does a mean Roy Orbison cover later on. As no one is identified with any kind of subtitle, and people only occasionally call each other by their names, I won't even try to identify who's who.

But the Ross brothers have a great eye for faces, and the high resolution cameras revel in the often worn, smoke- and booze-damaged complexions of the cast, mugs like many miles of bad road. By plying them with a controlled supply of real booze and then literally lighting the touch paper and retiring to let the fireworks go off (there are also literal fireworks later on in the car park), the process releases exactly the kind of flirting, monologuing and sometimes cantankerous debate you expect to hear in dive bars.

At one point, a younger patron gets into a rancorous discussion with an older man about how the baby boomers ruined the world, while ex-service people compare their psychic war wounds. Perhaps not surprisingly these days, there's relatively little serious discussion of politics, and nearly everyone seems just tired, suffused with cynicism and a sense of defeat. The tension-free mix of ethnicities and possibly sexualities on display might suggest working-class alcoholics are more tolerant and open-minded these days, but then again the fact that the film was cast and doesn't represent a true sampling of an actual bar makes it impossible to draw any larger sociological, political-science conclusions from the pic. This is not a New York Times documentary interviewing Trump voters in a diner, after all.

That said, by the end some may wonder for whom this movie is being made. The Ross brothers have had their work shown, like many another experimental filmmaker, largely in art house venues and fine art settings, not the sort of places that the film's subjects would themselves frequent. Like other more upfront and straightforward works of social realism, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raises questions about who is framing whom and to what end, and whether the film is at risk of aestheticizing poverty, addiction and despair for the delectation of an elite. Who knows? Let's have a drink and argue it out.

Production company: The Department of Motion Pictures
Cast: Michael Martin, Cheryl Fink, Marc Paradis, John Nerichow, Lowell Landes, Ira J. Clark, Bruce Hadnot, Pete Radcliffe, Felix Cardona, Al Page, Rikki Redd, Pam Harper, Shay Walker, Tra Walker, Trevor Moore, Kevin Lara, David S. Lewis, Kamari Stevens, Sophie Woodruff, Miriam Arkin
Directors-cinematographers: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Producers: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross, Michael Gottwald, Chere Theriot
Executive producers: Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott, David Eckles, Minette Nelson, Matt Sargeant, Bryn Mooser, Kathryn Everett, Josh Penn

Co-executive producers: Daniel Patrick Carbone, Matthew Petock, Zachary Shedd
Editor: Bill Ross IV
Music: Casey Wayne McAllister
Music supervisor: Rachel Sipser
Casting: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Sales: Cinetic

98 minutes