If you go into “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” without any background knowledge, as many viewers did when the movie from filmmaking brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross played at a number of prominent film festivals (including Sundance, Berlin and True/False) earlier this year, you’d probably assume that it’s a documentary about the last day of a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s. The Rosses are known for their artistically constructed documentaries, including “Tchoupitoulas” and “Western,” which have been festival and critical favorites. At first glance, “Bloody Nose” seems like another slice-of-life documentary, capturing real interactions in the moment, without any reflective interviews or contextual explanations.
Except it’s not. The Roaring 20s is not a real Las Vegas bar, the patrons that inhabit it were all recruited via casting sessions and given narrative arcs to follow, and aside from a handful of brief exterior scenes, the entire movie was shot in New Orleans. The Rosses aim to capture a feeling more than an actual place, and “Bloody Nose” is more about dive bar culture than it is about Las Vegas. Early on, genial bartender Marc (Marc Paradis) groans at a news story about Vegas institution Bonanza Gifts being sold to a new owner, complaining that the town has changed and Celine Dion might as well just take it over. But aside from that clichéd lamentation about Vegas being better in the old days, the movie doesn’t have anything to say about the town itself. The working-class bar patrons never mention casino or service industry jobs, and while the Rosses provide some haunting portrayals of functional alcoholism, nobody in the bar seems to have a gambling habit.
Sure, the bar TVs show news broadcasts from local Vegas station KTNV, but aside from the Bonanza Gifts story, the clips just feature traffic reports or promotional segments about cruise lines. The Roaring 20s could be in Vegas, or it could be in New Orleans, or it could be in a forgotten corner of any city, and that’s really the point of the movie. Whatever they do when they’re not at the bar, the people here form connections with each other when they sit here drinking, and with the bar closing, they’re all losing an important part of their everyday lives.
For bartenders Marc and Shay (Shay Walker), that means losing a job. And for Michael (Michael Martin), the closest the movie comes to a main character, it may mean losing a literal home. Michael shows up at the bar early in the morning as soon as it opens, and he stays until the wee hours of the next morning, occasionally sleeping on the couch. He cleans himself up and gives himself a shave in the bathroom when he arrives, and he carries more bags with him than anyone needs to bring into a bar. No one ever says that Michael is homeless, but it’s pretty clear that once the bar closes, he has nowhere else to go. His tragic arc forms the emotional core of a movie that often feels shapeless, in which other characters fade into the background, just part of the often indistinguishable noise of the bar.
That indistinguishable noise is what gives the movie its air of authenticity, though, as the Rosses capture snippets of drunken conversations that go in circles, sometimes suddenly turning belligerent and then just as suddenly turning back to affection. As in real life, characters show up, hang out for a bit and then head out, and the movie lets them go, leaving viewers to guess at what their lives are like outside the confines of The Roaring 20s. As affecting as Michael’s bitter regret can be (especially in a long speech he gives to a younger bar patron about the missed opportunities of his life), other small dramas make less of an impact, including Shay’s relationship with her burnout teenage son and the pain felt by a pair of military veterans who bond over being forgotten by society.
Even if it isn’t a documentary, “Bloody Nose” still has the lived-in feel of sitting at a bar next to someone who’s done plenty of hard living and has the stories to prove it. You won’t find The Roaring 20s in Vegas, but if you’ve spent time in local institutions like Champagne’s or the Dispensary Lounge or the Huntridge Tavern, you’ll recognize it.
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is now available via virtual theatrical release.