Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

Directed by Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross

Update (13/4/2020): Turns out it was staged. Some things are too good to be true.

“You had a nice place here.”

Knowing you’re experiencing something for the final time is an odd-sized feeling. Growing up, you might feel a little melancholy leaving home for college, knowing this is the end of childish things and your life is soon to get a lot bigger. Fortunately, that knowledge often comes with an accompanying sense of giddy anticipation of what’s over the shimmering horizon.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the Ross brothers’ documentary about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night, is in a sense about leaving home. Because for the regulars, it’s the end of their breathing room, the hangout, the place they could come “when nobody else want your ass.” The energy reflects that. Bittersweet, with the emphasis on the bitter, it presents a point of departure for its gallery of rogues where the horizons don’t shimmer with possibility and the celebrations aren’t giddy with anticipation of what’s to come. They don’t smile at each other with satisfaction, they aren’t confident they’re heading onto better things.  

There’s Michael, semi-retired actor and local Lazarus. In the morning he lifts his head up off the bar to choke down a shot, goes to shave in the bathroom sink, and then sits back down, reanimated. Alongside him is Lowell, a jovial flirt in overalls who’s been married “legally, twice.” There’s Ira, all pissed up around noon when the bar gets a call saying he should be at work. There’s Shay, bartender and owner, worried about her rebellious son on the loose in the Las Vegas night. Tonight, they’re together, and the day starts with banter and teasing delivered in the shorthand of lived-in relationships. But the night is long, drinks are many, and emotions run high on a night that is to be the end of all that.  

There for all of it, all of it, are Ross’s cameras, and they’ve made a film that’s penetratingly intimate and ubiquitously observant of every hushed last-call confession, angry nonsensical spat, and the silent tears brought on by anxieties too great to condense into words. It’s disarming and raw, and speaks of a level of trust between filmmakers and subjects that can rival the Maysles brothers, original practitioners of fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

The Ross brothers not only succeed in capturing the night as an event, they also capture all the small narratives, confrontations and letdowns that must occur on a night like tonight, where everyone’s running out of time and are desperate to know what they can wake up to tomorrow. It makes for an unflinching emotional honesty that’s hard to witness.

There aren’t a lot of happy fates among them, and credit to filmmakers Ross and Ross for never veering into sentimentality or exploitative prodding. Feelings are painted on, and Michael, Lowell, Shay and the rest couldn’t hide them if they wanted to. Because the bar isn’t just a place to have a drink. It’s the one place where the core group get to assume leading roles, to have their say and be heard, before they have to trickle out into a society that won’t cast them a second glance. 

The result is a human drama of high stakes and equal emotions. No philosophizing, commentary or attempts at analysis. Just raw, on-the-ropes humanity, community, and the devastating loss of the same. 

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