Is Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Almost every review of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is almost entirely about if the premise behind the film is correct or not. If you’re the kind of person who wants to avoid 100% of potential “spoilers” about media then make sure you see it before you read this. If you can handle discussion about a thing without seeing the thing, read on either way.

This is not a documentary. It pretends to be a documentary about the last night a dive bar is open in Las Vegas, but it’s actually a two-day shoot organized by a crew filled with actors in New Orleans playing characters pretending to be in Las Vegas on a bar’s last night. The opening shots follow people walking around Vegas, unmistakably the part of Vegas where you’d find a bar like the film’s Roaring 20s. The news on the TV in the bar talks about Vegas. The people talk about Vegas. It’s impossible to get away from Las Vegas in this movie.

And yet, we’re not in Vegas. It’s sneaky, sorta, but it also doesn’t matter. It’s interesting to engage with reviews of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets because they all seem to focus on this issue of if this is or isn’t a documentary. It’s not, obviously, because it’s a fictional story that actors play out rather than a true story. But there’s a case to be made that it doesn’t matter. This story isn’t real, but there’s a lot happening here that is. It’s certainly more real than most films, which is why the “documentary” label works even though it is not, strictly speaking, a documentary.

Directors Bill and Turner Ross want to present a vision of a dive bar that is “real” without being real. There’s an angle here that’s really important to recognize, as they cast actual people with limited acting experience but big personalities. The result is a realistic view and characters that feel fleshed out even though they really aren’t. We spend less than two hours in this story and outside of one or two central figures, most people barely get enough time to establish a few traits. Even still, the whole scene feels so, so real. This bar isn’t real, but this night is.

The bar opens early in the day and the regular we’ll spend the most time with, Michael, who sleeps on a couch in the bar and shaves in the bathroom every morning. Michael is the main character in the film, but also the main character in every bar like this you’ve ever experienced. The Ross brothers clearly understand the setting and what makes these places go, because they keep the camera on Michael for a significant amount of time. He double fists coffee and booze all day long, explaining the world to anyone who will listen. The difference is, these are all regulars. In the conceit of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, everyone will listen because they want someone to listen to them, too.

There is a veteran with aphorisms and worldly truths to share. There is a powerfully drunk woman who playfully comes on to people. There is a jokester who calls the bartender from the end of the bar to mockingly ask if he can call in an order for a beer. Even the daytime bartender is a character, with a guitar and a put-upon, fun-grumpy attitude. If you go in any bar that’s a little too dark and a little cheaper than it would necessarily have to be in any city in America, you’ll find someone on all of these wavelengths, if not to these degrees.

As the night progresses and the shift changes, a woman takes over the taps and chastises her son about staying out late and getting into trouble. Some younger folks come in, though few of the older crowd leave. The atmosphere gets drunker and more fun, then less fun, then no fun. It’s the natural path of a night like this in a place like this, which the directors capture successfully. They also capture each other in background shots, reminding the audience this is a film.

It’s all undeniably a neat trick, but it really works because it’s so accurate. The camera stays on as people get mean, at times, and nearly violent, at others. This is all an act, for sure, but it feels real. This is real booze, unless I’m seriously mistaken, and beyond the suggestion of where the characters should interact, this is a real story. The people are themselves, even if they aren’t really, exactly in a documentary. That’s why the line is so blurry and why I don’t think the distinction really matters.

Is it interesting to watch a bar? Anyone who has gotten a drunk dial while they were sober or anyone who has had to drive someone home after they had a night and you didn’t can tell you there is certainly a line. A few conversations feel agonizing and a few characters are less fun than others, but that’s true of any story. It never goes over the line and the story never goes into “shocking” territory. Even the sad moments where you’re forced to understand what this bar closing means for the regulars never stick around long enough to really grind you down. You just wonder what happens when that person goes through the door, just as you might after three longnecks with them as you watch a movie with the sound off from a stool in real life.

There is not one character that will stick with me, though an argument between two characters towards the end of the film delivers as much of a “message” as any in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Immediately after I finished it I texted two friends to tell them to plunk down the dollar the film costs because I wanted to know what they saw in it. I think everyone will see something else. It’s not really a universal message movie, though the setting is one that is absolutely, immediately familiar if you’ve seen it before. It’s not a documentary, I guess, but why does it need to be? Everyone in this movie is showing you something about themselves that you could never coach them to show you. You could write something from scratch that would look something like this, but what you’d lose is what makes this work.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The strongest comparison between Sound of Metal and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is that both are about people who are down but not necessarily about how down they are. Rueben in Sound of Metal is in recovery, while no one in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is headed even towards that path. Sound of Metal is much riskier and obviously shows a more complex concept, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. The central performance in Sound of Metal is amazing, but I am more fascinated by this one. Maybe it’s because the bar is a little lower for a true-to-life night in a bar than the story of hearing loss and how you choose to get back up or not, but between the two I feel like I’d recommend this one to a neutral observer more.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it would be interesting to ask if it’s the best documentary ever, though that’s a line of questioning for someone else. The only true documentary we’ve watched in this space is Dick Johnson Is Dead, and I think this is better than that. It’s not more thoughtful and the highs aren’t nearly as high, but I think Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets does exactly what it set out to do. I think a lot of people would say that about Dick Johnson Is Dead and would be right, but for me, I’ll take the night in the bar.

You can watch Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets on Amazon Prime ($0.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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