Nowadays, most people associate documentaries with true crime Netflix originals — “Tiger King” was the first notable piece of quarantine media. Noting the success of the genre, streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix each made their own separate documentaries on the failed Fyre Festival. While the genre has its merits — some films helped solve real-life criminal cases — it is far from the only way in which documentaries are made.
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” represents another mode of documentary filmmaking: the cinema-verite style. Since there is no narration, brothers Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV direct and produce the film. They seek to capture the last moments of a dive bar named Roaring 20’s, alongside its distinctive patterns.
Over the course of a day and a half, the Ross brothers film the loyal customers as they remember how important the Roaring 20’s has been to them. What starts out as a portrait of the bar soon becomes a portrayal of its patrons. Even though some patrons join the bar at night, the most interesting customers are those who arrive before noon.
These include a Vietnam veteran, a man getting drunk before going to work and Michael, a 50-something whose loyalty to the bar has made him look 70-something. There are two bartenders: a large man during the day, and at night, a working mom whose kid sleeps in the car while she works. Regardless of how long anyone is on screen, no one is a caricature.
The somber finality of the bar’s last day leads to many heartfelt last moments. An interesting motif of the film is how the Ross brothers show how nearly every character leaves the bar. The first man who leaves for work is seemingly too drunk to know he’s leaving, perhaps because he doesn’t want to know when he has to leave for the last time.
While some are kicked out, most of the patrons say goodbye to everyone. They promise to reconnect at the next watering hole they find. Two of the most moving departures are from the veteran and Michael. After he leaves, the Ross brothers follow him on his walk back, which allows the audience to see the tears streaming down his face as he heads home, never to return.
Michael has the most heartbreaking exit from the bar, since he wakes the morning after and leaves without saying a word. Since he’s at a loss for words about the place that meant so much to him, he chooses to say nothing.
The complexity of this movie is shaped by the fact that this documentary is staged. The Ross brothers cast these people from bars across the country, some of which have prior acting experience. They were then all brought together in New Orleans, and the brothers gave them situations to improvise for hours. The results, as mentioned, feel so real that their orchestration is not noticeable to those who know nothing of the film’s production history.
A vulnerable moment in the movie is when Michael is woken up by Pete, the young patron who’s been there nearly as long as Michael has. When Michael opens his eyes and sees Pete, he grabs Pete and tells him how he’s gotta get out of here. He tells Pete how he shouldn’t end up like him and that he has time to make something of himself. Michael snapping out of the drunken haze of the film’s atmosphere is a deeply tender moment for the audience to see.
Does the film’s design make this moment any less powerful? Would the audience have empathy for these people if they knew they were acting from the start? By leaving the audience with questions like these, “Bloody Nose Empty Pockets” stays with those who watch it long after the credits roll. Something I can’t say I was expecting from a film about dive bar patrons.
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