Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross/ USA/ 2020/ 98 mins

People tend to have their noses put out of joint when a narrative they have accepted at face value turns out to have been a construct. The furore over James Frey‘s tell-all ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces and the fabricated identity of JT Leroy (The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) are two such examples. People don’t like to feel conned (or stupid: many celebs were left with eggs on their faces over these cases). The Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was exhibited in the documentary strand of this year’s Sundance festival despite not really being a documentary. This raised some hackles. Purporting to be a celebration of the final day of The Roaring 20s, a dive bar off the Las Vegas, the Rosses took some fairly hefty liberties. It was shot over two days. The Roaring 20s remains open. The bar is actually in their hometown of New Orleans.

Still, Tom Waits‘ songs of barflies and dropouts never sounded any less authentic for them being fictional, and where else should you set your own artificial reality if not Las Vegas? Bill and Turner scouted the bars and streets of New Orleans until they found the people who fitted the archetypes they wanted to represent, along with the one actual trained actor (Michael Martin, a ravaged, Deep South version of Mark E. Smith). Having assembled their team, they gave their characters backstories and then let the alcohol flow. Anyone who has spent any time in any such environment will recognise what comes next, whether the location was a Vegas dive bar, a Berlin kneipe, or an East-End boozer.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets perfectly captures those sozzled, meandering evenings that don’t so much end as collapse in on themselves through slurred inertia. Characters come and go, bonds are formed and snapped, conversations peter out into ineloquent silence, threats are thrown, breasts are flashed, and tears are shed. As soon as it begins all worries of artifice and vérité are forgotten. The ringmasters are a kindly, prodigiously bearded gentleman named Marc and a hard-bitten, no-nonsense woman named Shay who dispenses shots and tough love for all who congregate under the jaundiced neon. And what characters they are.

There’s Bruce, the embittered black veteran whose speech about the poor treatment of former servicemen of colour would not be out of place in Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods. There’s raucous Pam, who corners a young Chris Rock lookalike and insists that her ’60-year-old titties’ have held up rather well. There’s a slightly bookish type who at some point swaps poetry for threats aimed at anyone who looks at him the wrong way. And there’s Michael, to whom we keep returning. Playing a version of himself, he’s the grizzled sage dispensing advice to all who will listen; the pub philosopher whose wisdom sits somewhere between indomitable stoicism and bitter empiricism.

As you would expect, the film is more coherent in its early stages. You initially wonder why the patrons’ speech is subtitled, but it soon becomes clear. The jukebox goes on and Ira, the first casualty of the day, is gently but firmly led out the door as he mumbles inaudible imprecations. Yes, those subtitles are necessary. The less-befuddled shake their heads sadly and order another shot. There is something of the freewheeling improv style of Richard Linklater at his least structured, or the more pared-back films of Jim Jarmusch in the presentation. Nothing really happens as such, but the characters are so lived-in and recognisable that it is entirely fascinating.

Like those evenings it so accurately depicts, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets somewhat unavoidably peters out by the end, particularly for the sober viewer. While the surrogate community is at times hilarious, moving and tragic – life in one vaguely sleazy microcosm – it comes with the attendant feeling that it’s time to leave before things get out of hand. This arrives some way before the end. It’s unfortunate this is embedded into the very design of the film, but there’s that one inarguable truth that shines through any construct. Drunk people are a hell of a lot more fun to be around when you’re hammered yourself. Nevertheless, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets does an amazing job of capturing the happy melancholy of days wasted over a bottle and putting the world to rights; safe in the knowledge that while you’re way too pissed to improve things, you’re also for the moment incapable of making them worse. Cheers to that.

Screening as part of BFI London Film Festival Tue 13 Oct 2020