Sundance 2020 Review: Bill and Turner Ross Deliver a Stirring Cocktail with “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”

Marc, who tends bar during the day shift at the Roaring ‘20s, is no fan of taking phone calls on the job and while he has his personal reasons, it’s as if every one he picks up in “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” pierces the hearth where the beer’s always flowing in the respite from the dry desert heat outside in Vegas. The phone is bound to stop ringing soon since the cocktail lounge is scheduled to shut their doors for good, a casualty of the rampant redevelopment happening in the city, and as Marc says defiantly, “Celine Dion can have it,” though the Roaring ‘20s patrons are far more circumspect about what they’re about to lose.

“It’s a place where you go when nobody else wants yo’ ass,” says Bruce, a combat vet who cuts in when one of the younger patrons tries out a more elegant eulogy, and it’s the mix of the sacred and profane that makes the latest from “Tchoupitoulas” and “Western” filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross so stirring, a film that need not venture outside of its time and place to tell the story of America. Although it’s one of the few things not to be brought up explicitly among the candid patrons, it’s understood that the action unfolds on land that was nothing more than sand until gangsters engineered a fantasy realized with no small amount of violence that preyed upon those believing that fortune was just a good poker hand away.

Those that chased the dream and have suffered from various forms of violence when it proved to be an illusion find themselves bellying up to the bar at the Roaring ‘20s, a place that has changed in meaning from somewhere to leave the world behind to a haven for those who have been left behind by the world. However, if the Ross brothers find people who have been inevitably disappointed to learn what the American Dream promised was never within their grasp when their social standing was determined likely well before birth, they illuminate the country’s charter at its most hopeful, observing relative strangers showing compassion towards one another when their struggle is shared, even if their individual issues diverge.

A place where the men are as likely to have long hair as the women, the Ross brothers are careful to make the Roaring ‘20s an inviting place rather than one of despair, bathed in warm light that intoxicates as much as any cocktail served at the bar. Even before the alcohol kicks in, there’s interesting characters in every corner – Michael, the soul of the place who untangles his life to anyone who will listen at the same rate his ponytail unfurls as the day wears on; John, an Aussie who asks if anyone minds him taking his pants off before settling into a long night of drinking ahead; and Shay, who presides over the night shift behind the counter and has to worry about her teen son Trey getting into trouble while putting up with increasingly inebriated customers, just to name a few. They may have come here to drown their sorrows, but the company is what lifts their spirits and ”Bloody Nose Empty Pockets” feels as if it’s extending a real privilege in spending time with them. In uncertain times, the film brilliantly finds the strongest national institution we have isn’t made of bricks or even laws, but of people and as unpredictable as they may be, they can all offer something solid.

“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th at 8:30 am at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City and 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 in Salt Lake City, January 29th at 3:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City, January 31st at noon at the Library Center Theater in Park City, and February 1st at noon at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room.

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