Turner and Bill Ross’ latest documentary, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, is a testament to rural drinking culture set against the tumultuous time of the United States’ recent history, the end of 2016. The film follows the antics of a group of close drinking buddies over the course of the last night of business at the bar Roaring 20s’, a place where no one is a stranger and everyone appears to be close friends.
While this film was officially entered in the American Documentary section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and each “character” in the film is played by the real patrons of said bar, it is quite obvious of the staged elements of the film. However staged or unstaged the film truly is, the emotions portrayed by each character, and subsequently felt through the audience, could not be more genuine.
As the United States continues to be more city-focused than ever in its history, there is some truth in the claim that rural America is beginning to lose its voice. Some find it easy to tune out the opinions of those in these communities and prematurely force them into the dangerous category of the loud, far right-wing opinions of those who may have a similar background, but the Ross brothers are here to remind us these communities are just as diverse in opinion as those from urban areas. Over the course of the 98-minute run-time, the patrons of the bar discuss politics, philosophy and everything in between.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets feels genuine because it is genuine. Sure, the people in the film are knowingly being filmed and thus lean into themselves, creating larger-than-life characters, but who doesn’t find themselves playing a caricature of themselves in certain social situations? Everyone plays into the persona they have built for themselves in varying degrees depending on the circumstance, so the Ross’ and camera crew’s presence shouldn’t be a deterring factor in flagging this film as “inauthentic.” Their experimental style brings out exactly who each person believes they are, or, at least, what each individual wants the outside world to believe they are. This dichotomy is rarely dissected with such precision as the Ross’ film as they use the real patrons of the bar, rather than actors, so the emotions and personas portrayed could not be more real if acted by the best actors in the world.
The numerous “performances” throughout Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets give life and help guide the audience through the little in the shadow of Las Vegas, for instance, Michael Martin’s role as himself. Martin is more or less the “main character” of the documentary-narrative hybrid and gives the film a much-needed grounding among the numerous, often interchangeable, characters at the bar. From his chain-smoking to his countless drinks throughout the day, his nature is wholesome and relatable. He drifts from character to character, or person to person, and provides a much-needed backbone to the group of people.
Martin’s role as the spine of the film was certainly a specific decision by the Ross brothers, and, like many cinematic choices throughout the film, does feel too contrived at times. Yet, the Ross brothers take the patrons of this unfamiliar Las Vegas dive bar and paint a beautiful portrait of modern rural America. Yes, the loud minority within rural America makes it easy to tune out forgotten America, especially at such a dividing time in our nation’s history, but the Ross brothers bring nuance and appreciation to these “characters” and those who live in similar environments.