Review: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ conveys the inelegance and racket of a night on the piss

Review: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ conveys the inelegance and racket of a night on the piss

Words By Augustus Welby


Pour yourself a neat whisky or three in readiness for this drunken escapade.

This is a drinking movie. A beer and whiskey movie. A piece of cinéma vérité centred on an all-nighter in a legitimate dive bar. If you’re of a certain generation – one that’s come to view the American dive as the epitome of hipsterdom – that description might have you licking your lips.

But Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is not a romanticised projection. The cast of characters aren’t all attractive middle-class millennials sinking tins of Pabst Blue Ribbon and discussing their respective acronyms according to the Myers-Briggs metric. But it’s not lacking in sentimentality, either.

The events of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets occur almost entirely within the walls of The Roaring 20’s, a bar in a Las Vegas strip mall during its final day and night of operation. The bar is located in the city’s northern suburbs, and so nowhere near the garish gluttony of the Strip.

It’s due to be torn down as part of a redevelopment project. And although little emphasis is placed on the apathetic crusades of developers – who’re prone to tearing down establishments that mightn’t draw thumping profits, but carry strong significance for the locals – this sort of commentary is implied by directors, brothers Bill and Turner Ross.

The Roaring 20’s is a dive in the most unsophisticated sense. It’s a hideout for ailing drunks and a low-key hangout for neighbourhood 20-somethings. It’s a democratic locale where age-based segregation is left at the door.

Inside, no one’s too cool for anyone else, or too insufferable for that matter. The drinks, one presumes, are cheap. The decor tacky, with flashing slot machines punctuating the otherwise suffocatingly-dim lighting. The bar staff are familial and categorically respected. The conversations aren’t always scintillating, but occasionally – when the booze balance is just right – contain philosophical or political import.

The Rosses make a purposeful attempt to portray the inelegance and unpredictability of a heavy day and night on the piss. There isn’t a great deal of physical activity – the dozen or so gathered regulars spend most of the film sat around the bar. People move seats occasionally or perhaps stand up in a moment of intoxicated inspiration. But the Ross brothers do a stellar job at portraying the way in which a night on the turps can feel like an occasion of great animation.

With each drink, the room reconfigures; each conversation, no matter how banal or fleeting, takes on a sense of critical importance. The Rosses convey the drinkers’ altered consciousnesses courtesy of disorienting close-ups, foggy lenses, and by not interfering with the less-than-ideal lighting situation.

Given the film’s compelling content, I’m reluctant to reveal that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets isn’t as organic as it purports to be. The characters, while most of them not trained actors, nor following a script, aren’t a regular band of neighbourhood drunks. They were hired for the film, which was shot over two separate nights in the real Roaring 20’s – a bar in New Orleans’ low-income Terrytown neighbourhood.

I watched the film with my partner, who bought so deeply into the characters that the revelation of the film’s artifice felt like a betrayal. But the drinks, drugs, hugs and conversations are all real. And the fact you find yourself so engrossed, both sensually and intellectually, in the goings on at The Roaring 20’s is a testament to the filmmakers’ skilful execution.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is screening as part of MIFF 68½. The festival runs from now until Sunday August 23. Head to the festival website for tickets and the full program.

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