★★★★☆

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ vérité style belies a quasi-staged reality that challenges the distinction between fiction and documentary, studying the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Shot over the course of a single night, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets depicts the final night of ‘The Roaring 20s’, a Las Vegas bar set to shutter forever.

In actual fact, the bar is located in New Orleans, still open, and the ‘regulars’ are a combination of real local barflies and non-professional actors. The film documents the carousing, heart-to-hearting, weeping and impromptu sleeping of the regulars on their last night all together. From the 1970s-styled opening credits and rolling soundtrack of folk-pop-rock to the crackly TVs mumbling in the background and the kitsch trinkets decorating the bar’s nooks, this is the faded Americana of a Tom Waits song come to life.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets paints a portrait at once authentic and contrived. Its textures are rich and familiar. Are they so because we recognise that bar from our lives, or from an ingestion of pop-cultural soup that mythologises such places and people? Is there even a distinction to be made.  constructed or captured, or both? Michael, the undisputed tragic sweetheart of the film, is actually stage actor Michael Martin, but his admission that he is an actor disrupts otherwise clear distinctions that might divide the ‘real’ and ‘performed’ Michael.

Certainly, the magnificent observational nuggets he dispenses throughout the day – “I pride myself on not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure” – are poignant regardless of how scripted they are. As the day meanders into the night, characters fade in and out of the frame. A transgender woman arrives in the afternoon to catch up with Michael, disappears, then is suddenly there after dark, dancing and lip-syncing her way across the bar room.

Multiple stories play out and intersect, finding structure in the edit. Bartender Shay’s teenage son, Tra gets loaded around the back of the bar, fobbing his mother off with the amusingly-unlikely story that he’s just eating beef jerky with his buddies; an insecure poetaster composes a piece dedicated to the bar, heckled by an ageing war vet who later pours out his heart to Pam, a lush who dispenses advice to a young man on how she’s kept her “60-year-old titties” firm. If Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets succeeds in any one thing, it’s in capturing the wandering, picaresque continuity of a really good night on the lash, peopled by friends and familiars who seem to come in and out of our own personal frame.

The film is not explicitly political, yet context invariably informs and frames the piece, shot the day after Trump grifted his way the White House while pundits debate the result in between episodes of Jeopardy and syndicated classic movies. Peopled with misfits, the forgotten and the would-be forgotten, this community may well be constructed, but so are all communities through a messy assemblage of shared memories, space and experiences. Michael, the last of the group, finally rouses himself from the bar couch, barks at the staff one final time and stumbles bleary-eyed into the morning. Constructed or not, there is no question that we have witnessed something real.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Christopher Machell@MachellFilm