Review: In 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,' a Vegas dive bar's last hurrah isn't quite what it seems

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Like the song by The Replacements says: Here comes a regular. In the first shot of “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” a fascinating experiment in documentary/fiction hybrid moviemaking by the brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, a man bearing coffee slowly zigzags his way across a hot Las Vegas street and arrives at his destination. He’s our introduction to the Roaring 20 1/4 u2032s Cocktail Lounge, way, way off the Las Vegas Strip, a bar about to enter its final day and night and early morning of existence.

“Celine Dion can have it,” the bartender with the ZZ Top beard mutters, once the film ventures inside. “I’m movin’.”

One by one, we meet a sharply realized variety of hard-drinking regulars. More than the bartender, the true host of this enticingly dodgy enterprise (more on that soon) is Michael, a reedy, creased but lively-eyed sometime actor who cleans up the bar in exchange for the couch over in the corner.

At one point, the camera catches him reading a Eugene O’Neill play collection, checked out from the library. The movie is O’Neill’s rummy rhapsody “The Iceman Cometh,” old Vegas style, with a clear eye and an empathetic gaze at the lure, and the trap, of a life defined by alcohol.

The film covers 18 hours or so, with preparations for the lounge’s farewell party as the start and another coffee run, with the sun coming up again, for the finish. It has the pacing, the lurching energy as well as the torpor of a melancholic bender, scored by all the right jukebox selections: Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee, that sort of thing. Early on Michael says: “I pride myself on not having become an alcoholic until after I was already a failure.” All the characters in the place, including Bruce Hadnot playing a military veteran with a steely look and a melancholy air, pay their respects to the bar their own way.

But wait. Did I say Bruce Hadnot plays a military veteran? Isn’t this a documentary? Well, no, it isn’t. There’s no big reveal in “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,’ but the making of it constitutes a wily sleight-of-hand maneuver. The movie was made in New Orleans, not Las Vegas. The Ross brothers cast the film there, and found the right people to play heightened or sideways-variation versions of themselves. They filmed it as if it were a two-day play set in a bar about to pour its last whisky.

So “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” belongs not to a conventional nonfiction documentary genre, but something rarer. Like the fact/fiction riches of “On the Bowery” (1957) or the lost-in-LA documentary/narrative hybrid “The Exiles” (1961), this movie creates illusions of truth out of artifice that happens to look, act, smell and taste like its own indelible reality. Anyone who has a soft spot for a Tom Waits ballad or The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” will recognize the faces and sadness and misspent hours on screen here.

It’s no picnic, and nobody’s future shines with promise. Yet the character of Michael, played with an air of serious authenticity by Michael Martin, offers his own spirit of survival. Chicago theater audiences may remember Martin as the creator of the underground cabaret hit “Verbatim Verboten.” For those audiences, the actor will render the conceit behind “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” a dead giveaway. Even so, the film’s peculiar, lingering pathos do not depend on any sort of strict genre definition. The effectiveness depends on caring about the people in the bar, waiting for last call.

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‘BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS’

3 stars

No MPAA rating (in the R range, for language, brief nudity)

Running time: 1:38

Streaming: Out now via Film at Lincoln Center; starting Friday via Music Box Theatre.

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