Charles Bukowski would recognize the habitués of Las Vegas dive bar the Roaring 20s. So, would you if you put in any time in a bar that is welcoming enough and has been around long enough to attract a dedicated family of regulars. One of those places that doesn’t call itself a “cocktail lounge” and doesn’t employ mixologists, but a joint for a beer and a shot among strangers who become friends. And for the regulars at the Roaring 20s in Bill and Turner Ross’ shambling, engaging documentary, it is time to spend one last night together there as “last call” really is just that for a watering hole about to close forever.
The twist is that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is not a documentary at all. There never was a Roaring 20s in Las Vegas. The Ross brothers shot some of the shabbier, off-the-Strip streets way back in 2009 shortly after the big financial implosion. But nearly a decade went by before they circled back around to that Sin City footage. In the interim, the siblings upped their profile with the releases of Tchoupitoulas (2012), Western (2015), and Contemporary Color (2016).
Revisiting their Las Vegas idea, they opted not to revisit Las Vegas, instead auditioning bars in their own city New Orleans, eventually finding one with the right timeworn but inviting ambiance. Then they populated the place with a large ensemble of barflies, some actors, others one suspects not, and allows them to improvise their way through the Roaring 20s’ last hurrah. The Rosses make no attempt to hide their cameras, so the film crew, too, becomes part of the mise en scène.
Anchoring the story’s kitchen-sink realism is weathered, white-haired Michael Martin, playing a homeless regular who is the first customer in the door in the morning and the last to leave in the wee hours of the next day. He is gruff but friendly, helpful, and he has no illusions about his life. As the final minutes count down on the Roaring 20s, he counsels Pete (Peter Elwell), a young musician following Michael’s same path of dissipation, “I’m 58. I look 70. I used to be an actor and I used to be pretty good at it… You need to get out of here while you’re still a musician.”
Not all of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is that heavy. There are moments of humor, scenes of affection between people who exist together only in this space and know they may never be together again, the nostalgia that comes from the realization that something is coming to an end, and the petty, drunken spats that erupt when booze flows like water.
From the opening frames as Michael makes his way down a shabby street on his way to the bar, Buck Owens’ ’60s country classic “Big in Vegas” striking a plaintive note on the soundtrack, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets sets a bittersweet tone. Set in the here and now (the day after Trump’s election, in fact), the muted tones of the cinematography and the nature of tipplers who scarcely seem to exist outside of their favorite dive give the film a timeless quality: It could have been set at any time in the last 50 years and little would change, except at one time Michael would have been the young actor on the receiving end of a friendly lecture.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an impressive feat for the Ross brothers and their large ensemble. For all of its artifice, a kind of truth emerges. Maybe not actual facts, but there is an undeniable sense of emotional veracity that imbues every frame. The film might not fit a documentary’s traditional parameters, but the emotions and personalities that inhabit it lend it a verisimilitude that make it more real than any reality show and far more resonant. –Pam Grady