In the popular imagination, a bar is a space defined by contradictions. It’s a social setting that fosters community, but it’s a community built upon casual connections, transactional relationships, and a readily available drug. It’s a haven for many, a place of refuge from the outside world. Yet, the safety it provides is temporary, and neither the alcohol nor the kept company can protect anyone from themselves. In a bar, everybody might know your name, like the song says. But a bar also cultivates a certain anonymity. Identities are disclosed, but their full picture may never come into focus.
Within that framework, however, undoubtedly lies beauty. Its sounds are a familiar balm: the crackle of inane conversation and shaggy stories being shared, clinking glasses mixed with shuffling feet and low-volume TV, a running jukebox that’s background noise or a party mix depending on circumstance. Regulars are welcomed with smiles and open arms. Funny jokes and sad tales sit next to each other among collections of souls both lost and found. It’s a sacred corner where strangers can quickly become friends, and sometimes genuine bonds are formed.
In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directors Bill and Turner Ross pay semi-documentary tribute to the idea that atmosphere is as much a social lubricant as booze. The film ostensibly chronicles the last day and night of business for Roaring 20s, a dive bar on the far outskirts of Las Vegas, as regulars roll through to say their final goodbyes to a beloved watering hole. Except Roaring 20s isn’t located in Vegas, and isn’t actually closing. The Ross brothers shot Bloody Nose in their hometown of New Orleans, and all the “patrons” were the product of street casting sessions from their favorite dives. The filmmakers then gathered their subjects together for a continuous 18-hour shoot in a set-dressed bar, footage that forms the bulk of the film. A second shoot following up on threads introduced in the first, lo-fi scouting footage, and a longer shoot on location in Vegas—most of which was excised from the final cut—comprises the interstitial material.
Much has been made of Bloody Nose’s artificial conceit, which has inevitably rankled documentary purists. Putting aside nonfiction film’s history of employing narrative constructs and carefully staged fibs to achieve “reality,” anyone who’s ever spent time in a bar won’t bat an eye at the Ross brothers’ methods, because it’s clear they’re after a deeper truth. The location itself might be a stage for the film’s barflies, but they’re bringing almost everything else to the table. Their interactions are frank and unaffected, and their inebriation is real. The result is one of the best depictions of bar culture in recent years, in conversation with established classics of the genre—The Iceman Cometh on stage, Cheers on television, and a litany of booze-soaked cinema like Last Night At The Alamo, Tree’s Lounge, Barfly, and, to a lesser extent, California Split—but also operating entirely on its own wavelength.
A lot of Bloody Nose’s power comes down to the Ross brothers’ expert ensemble casting. Every “character” who enters the bar requires minimal introduction, and feels fully formed. They’re immediately recognizable figures, people who you could conceivably see at the end of the bar in a Roaring 20s-esque establishment. Though the Ross brothers give their subjects plenty of room to showcase their individual personalities, their fly-on-the-wall approach necessarily prioritizes group dynamics. The drinkers and the bartenders are primarily characterized in relation to each other: the ways they engage and isolate themselves, the times when they’re vulnerable enough to express their feelings and the moments they shut down, the carefree laughs as well as the tears and fights and solemn pauses. Everything from the extensive micing in the bar to the Ross brothers themselves roaming the interior, each unafraid of being captured in the other’s frame, is in service of honestly depicting a night out with this makeshift community.
If Bloody Nose has a main character, it’s Michael Martin, who’s first seen being woken up by the daytime bartender who proclaims, “The best part of waking up is bourbon in your cup.” A 58-year-old former actor who, per his words, “ruined his life sober,” Michael sleeps on the Roaring 20s couch and will lose his home when the bar closes down in the morning. Before then, though, he cuts it up with everyone who walks through the door, espousing no-bullshit one-liners about how his generation ruined the country—“I woke up one morning and the bottom fell out of manufacturing,” he jokes—and helping set up decorations for the last hurrah. He’s something of a bar mascot, someone who’s always there with a joke and a smile, and who soothes others when they’re in need. But Michael has no illusions about who he is and where he spends his time. Near the end of the film, he pleads with a musician who frequents the joint to get out while he still can, earnestly telling him, “There is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more, because he’s in a bar.”
However, it’s to Bloody Nose’s considerable benefit that the Ross brothers never quite take their film into an explicitly tragic, Eugene O’Neill-like direction. Every shade of alcoholism appears on screen, and there’s a palpable understanding that boozy evenings thinly mask a core sadness, especially when they’re coming one after another. But they also maintain a careful tone, equally allowing for comedy and melancholy. Bloody Nose has an editing rhythm particularly attuned to punchlines, which makes it endlessly quotable. But what’s remarkable is how the jokes don’t feel out of place next to, say, scenes of a veteran tearfully describing his country’s ingratitude or tense discussions of national failure. Though filmed in the immediate wake of the 2016 election, Bloody Nose doesn’t feature much overt political talk, yet a uniquely American malaise permeates the film anyway. There’s a subdued end-of-the-world foundation that provides the film with profound emotional weight, now amplified by the fact that COVID-19 has rendered bar-going an unsafe proposition.
What stands out the most about Bloody Nose are the small gestures. A woman getting up from her seat to dance with someone so they feel less alone. Michael slowly shepherding a fellow barfly in the throes of a blackout spell to a cab, ensuring him that he’ll see him tomorrow. Two people flirtatiously lean on each other, their hands not quite touching. It’s a film comprised of snapshots, glimpses from a hazy evening. But the Ross Brothers understand that these are the moments that paint people in their best, most unguarded light.