A darkly-comic and moving portrayal of America’s down-and-out generation.
Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets follows the coming and goings of a group of barflies that find solace in a dilapidated Las Vegas bar. Filmed over the final few weeks of the bar’s existence before it’s closed for good, the staff and regulars at the Roaring 20’s contend with the idea of life without their regular drinking joint. Through intergenerational relationships, they discuss the future of America.
Perhaps the most outstanding thing in a long line of outstanding things about Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, is the filmmaker’s ability achieve a rare neutrality in their approach. Fly-on-the-wall style camera work strikes a perfect balance between understanding and condemnation; it’s entirely the viewer’s choice to whittle the bar’s regulars down to a bunch of sorry lowlifes, or alcoholics who were unjustly born playing catch-up. At no point do we feel a relinquishing hatred towards any of the many characters that flit in and out of scenes, despite some having tired and sour views. At one point, a younger man drunkenly argues with the older barflies, claiming that their generation set him up to fail. It feels like a warranted argument, and some of the older men even begin agree with him, but the bitterness in his voice betrays him as he seeks to lay blame on others for his own failures. Meanwhile, a drunken veteran weeps into his friends arms as he laments his disappointment that younger people have lost respect for what it truly means to go to war. It makes the film a difficult watch at points. It feels unapologetically real, and the characters we meet are captivating. Eccentric but entirely normal — average Americans left behind to rot in a dusty little town called Las Vegas.
Days turn into weeks turn into months inside the bar, and it’s near impossible to tell how much time is passing from scene to scene. But the filmmakers provide crucial context. While the barflies spend their days sipping concoctions out of short glasses and a guitar-playing barman tries to shuffle near-paralytic drunkards out into the street, the television in the corner of the bar relays talk shows, breaking news, and game shows that tell us more about the people inside the bar (and about America as a whole) than simply watching ageing men and women searching for meaning at the bottom of an empty bottle. Bulletins for Trump’s upcoming election flash across the screen, while talk shows discuss cruise liner holidays… out of reach fables and worn-out dreams for the harsh realities that this bar is facing.
Crucially, the filmmaking doesn’t intrude on these character’s lives. We see them sit, drink, talk, cry, laugh, dance, celebrate and fight with each other as if watching a family. We grow attached, but we feel detached. It’s not relatable but you understand the pain the characters feel (and in some cases, choose to ignore). Their home — this cheap, dingy bar — is closing for good. And it’s hard to stomach.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an important and heartbreaking look at blue-collar America from the view through the bottom of a whisky glass. A stoic and brave glimpse into the ups and downs alcoholics face on a daily basis, and an even more harrowing look into a nation on the verge of dividing its young and old irreversibly. It’s bleak in subject matter, but startlingly heartwarming in its approach, and although the bar may be closed, this film ensures we understand that the issues this documentary raises are still very much open.
This article was produced in conjuncture with Cinephemera, a joint venture by Betty Woodhouse and Connor Cudmore that combines design and words to discuss film.
Words by Connor Cudmore
Design by Betty Woodhouse