Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an intoxicating immersion in a bar’s last stand

The Ross brothers’ latest gem is an intimate ode to the potency of fleeting connections, and to life in all its infinite complexity and possibilities.

Closing night carousers at the Roaring ’20s bar, Las Vegas, in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

▶︎ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 24 December.

There is a line in Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet that goes: “What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.”

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directed by the Ross brothers Bill and Turner, reflects this sentiment. It is a film about life, connections, pleasure and the stories we tell. In the Roaring ’20s, a dive bar somewhere in Las Vegas, an assortment of regulars assemble for the closing night. Over the course of an 18-hour stretch, decorations are hung, drinks flow, and a lively send-off rolls us intoxicatingly through the night. A hairy, cuddly barman jokes and plays Roy Orbison on his guitar; romantic chemistry and possibility hangs in the air; toasted revellers go out with a roar into the night.

As well as the rowdy partying and ecstatic exclamations, the Ross brothers capture poignant moments of private reflection, just as Albert Maysles did with the fast-talking bible-sellers of Salesman (1968). Beneath the heady conversations the film is anchored in feeling. Out-of-work actor Michael (Michael Martin) emerges as a central character. He’s been sleeping on the bar’s couch indefinitely, and is about to lose this sanctuary. His encounters with other bar-goers reveal tenderness, weariness and acute self-awareness. Although these are people who have cooperated with the directors essentially to play themselves in the fictional closing night of a bar, there are real connections, and what we witness feels authentic – it is cinema.

Michael Martin in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

The Ross brothers’ debut feature 45365 (2009) was an observation of life in their hometown Sidney, Ohio. Their second feature, Tchoupitoulas (2012), followed a trio of brothers on an adventure around New Orleans.

In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the brothers have thoroughly embedded themselves in the fabric of the bar. What ties these films together is the Rosses’ specific talent for evoking a sense of place, the excitement of possibility, and the rapport you can establish with merely a snippet of a conversation between old – or new – friends. In their new film the brothers get to the heart of that feeling of being enveloped or swept up by a night out with other people that seem uncannily familiar. Politics are thrashed out through lived experience, the intimacy of a charged conversation. Veterans from different generations of war share their deepest pain, and exorcise the ghosts of unresolved trauma. None of it is scripted, yet it is beautifully told.

The day-shift bartender and Lowell Landes in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

One of the most compelling aspects of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the casting. Lowell ambles down the sidewalk on his way to the bar, with his flowing white wavy mane, the spit of an older Donald Sutherland. Another drinker, with a shock of bushy grey hair, who’s aptly referred to as Einstein, struggles with the physics of his own car lights. The familiarity of these faces is striking and feeds into the power of cinema, just as Delmore Schwartz envisions it in his short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: a young man goes to the cinema only to realise the film he’s watching is the story of his parents’ courtship. He becomes agitated and shouts at the screen, but is silenced by the ushers and the irritated audience. When cinema hits those deep notes of affinity, you recognise your old friends on screen, your own feelings and memories, and the boundaries of connection melt a little.

Bruce Hadnot and Pam in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

The sound design is a vital element of the storytelling; bursts of wistful music punctuate the film’s chapters, while tunes such as Percy Sledge’s Come Softly to Me reverberate amidst a chattering background, recreating the lulling resonance of a jukebox. The soft warmth of those subterranean bass-lines and well-worn melodies are as important to the film as the visuals – which, like their previous films, have fuzzy, sensory colours evocative of early motion picture processes such as Technicolor and Kinemacolor. The texture of the cinematography is cosy, woozy, rose-dipped; it’s a vision of a bar that feels as if it has been frozen in time for decades – a drunken lifeboat amid the storms that the regulars have hunkered down in for many a night of nursing broken hearts, singalongs and putting the world to rights. It has the intoxicating closeness and inebriated vigour of William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton (2006); the exuberance of Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure (1978).

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a film built on authenticity, pulled together with artful construction, but as one of the partygoers says when the suggestion of romance blossoms during the evening: “That felt real.” Although it premiered in the Sundance documentary strand, the mutable lines of fiction and nonfiction are irrelevant to its existential essence. It is a film that invites you to spend a little time in an embrace of the moment, dipping in and out of intimacies, soaking up the atmosphere, with a nod to the impermanence of all things. As Peggy Lee sings in the closing credits: “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing…”

Further reading