This place sucked anyways.
If ever there’s a case to stop singling documentaries out as a different entity when compared to fictional narratives, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross‘ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a prime contender. Despite categorization that started at Sundance (much to the filmmakers’ own surprise), plenty of viewers have been quick to refute its place under the “documentary” banner because it doesn’t uphold their idea of journalistic (investigative, editorialized, or vérité) documentation. They’re correct. But just as many are throwing their weight to uphold the designation because the finished piece is an unscripted account of what happened regardless of whether the creation of the place and enlistment of the people weren’t. So it’s both real and not. It’s narrative fiction captured without external interference. It’s a feature film.
So let’s enjoy it as such regardless because there’s so much comedy, heart, and authenticity that transcend any label being placed upon it. And it’s not like the Ross Brothers were looking to cause any controversy. They told Sundance what they did upfront and the festival upheld their decision if for no other reason than knowing that reversing it would be a disservice to the augmented reality on-screen. Yes, the Las Vegas-area Roaring 20s bar doesn’t exist and is in fact a repurposed establishment in New Orleans dressed specifically for the film. No, the cast of barflies and tenders didn’t know each other before the cameras rolled in 2016, but many of them are barflies and all of them were recruited to be who they are.
The story goes that the Ross Brothers wanted to capture America through the lens of a bar during the tumultuous times of the 2010s only to discover no bar they visited had all the elements of the idea that was in their heads. So they decided to create their own approximation by handpicking certain personalities and identities to interact within a carefully conceived environment primed to allow for those elements to come out naturally. Their premise was a hole-in-the-wall on its final day of operation due to increased real estate spending in Vegas driving small businesses to the ground. How would the employees react? How about the people who’ve called it home (figuratively and literally) for years? Their recruits were given arrival times and let loose.
Marc Paradis and Shay Walker serve drinks. John Nerichow brings his mysterious brown paper bag to be revealed later. Pam Harper and Lowell Landes cultivate an unshakeable kinship. Bruce Hadnot sits alone opposite the boisterous regulars before finding his voice (and Michael Jackson dance moves). Some younger folks filter in as the sun goes down. Shay’s teenager and his friends smoke some pot in the alley out back. Talk turns from nostalgia to pain, regrets to hope. And Michael Martin—a failed actor (in the film, still working in life) who cleans the bar and sleeps on its couch—laments this haunt’s swan song with a mix of reverence and rage because he’s allowed himself to get to the point where its closure kicks him onto the streets.
What transpires is real. Verbal fights ignite along generational lines. Two military veterans cry on each other’s shoulders about how quickly their country forgot them after they sacrificed themselves for it. A customer flirts with Shay, sparklers get everyone into the parking lot for celebration, and a bit of acid is consumed to get things going even crazier than the alcohol-infused haze that descends the moment the clock turns to 11:00am. Marc sings. Rikki Redd performs. Michael tries to imbue wisdom so Pete Radcliffe doesn’t end up like him. And almost everyone’s final goodbye out the door brings with it a few tears. Because whether or not this is actually their bar, the experience and emotions make it so for these eighteen hours. Tonight they’re family.
When someone stumbles and falls, two others pick them up. When a regular is too drunk to leave his stool, two others call a cab and wait with him to ensure he gets inside. They care for one another no matter the circumstances. And they also speak with the uncertainty of the times (Trump’s victory in the election got the Ross Brothers into gear so the raw reactions to it could help stir up feelings and lead dialogue towards truth beyond the artificial surroundings). Michael’s disillusionment therefore resonates as deeply as Lowell’s unbridled joy. Bruce’s silent contemplations and unmistakable sadness pierce our hearts so that his genuine smile on the dance floor can lift us up even higher. We know these people. We are these people.
So yes. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a documentary. Just because the reality and humanity it captures is heightened doesn’t make it any less pure. They each settle in after downing a few drinks anyway so that their lived experiences can rise to the surface and take control. That’s when the cameras start to shift from one side of the room to the other so the best parts of every fluctuating clique’s conversations can be heard. The Ross Brothers deftly cut these hours of footage down to a poignant ninety-eight that’s able to touch upon the zeitgeist without getting too political and our growing nihilism with the perfect dose of optimism to counteract its weight. It’s the end of an era, but not the end. Life beats on.
courtesy of Sundance