Just explaining the concept of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets potentially constitutes a spoiler to the sufficiently way reader, so I guess the best way to start is to say: if you are a lover of human beings, this is a film for you. And if there is any shred of justice in this world, filmmaking brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross will be able to convert the considerable critical attention they've gotten from making this project into an ever-richer career testing the fuzzy boundaries at the edges of genre, where this film does such rich work exploring the kind of lives that rarely get noticed in movies at all, and certainly never with the unforced generosity on display here.

So with that out of the way, the concept goes like this: fundamentally, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a mockumentary, though that feels like the wrong term. "Fictional documentary" is maybe better. At heart, it's an example of devised theater done as cinema, but we don't really have a framework for that kind of thing. Basically, the Rosses traveled the United States, going from dive bar to dive bar, looking for people who seemed to have within their faces the essence of lifelong dive bar patrons, and assembled them inside the Roaring 20s, a bar in Terrytown, LA, a suburb of New Orleans. They provided real alcohol to everyone involved, and asked them to enact the final day in the life of an ancient dive bar where they're all regulars. The Rosses filmed a whole day's "business" using two cameras they operated themselves, and Bill edited the whole thing down to 98 minutes, using neon-colored establishing shots of Las Vegas to break the film into chapters, and set the action in that city, with its aura of desert exhaustion and the worn-out people straggling on the outskirts of humanity in the place that best typifies the leering excesses of American consumer culture.

We can spend an enormous amount of unproductive time trying to determine, based on the above, what Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets "counts" as: not a documentary is my verdict, but who gives a shit if it's a documentary? What it mostly is, and what gives its value, is a kaleidoscope of humanity on a downward slide into the dust of history, remaining proud and self-assured even in the face of loss. The Roaring 20s is simultaneously a very concrete place, whose physical layout becomes intimately familiar over the course of the movie (and of course, it has basically the same floor plan as God knows how many such places), and an artificial concept, constructed out of different human fragments and locations to put across the idea of The American Watering Hole In Its Decline. The film was shot right around the time of the 2016 presidential election, which was almost entirely erased in the final cut, but the feeling of a society uncertain of how much we actually all have in common with each other, pervades the movie. The bar itself serves as a clear-cut metaphor for all the public spaces where people from different walks of life get thrown together in one messy pool of humanity - giving it some added resonance as a 2020 release, it hardly needs saying (the film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, not even two months before the world shut down) - and the notion that something necessary and precious will be lost when the Roaring 20s ceases to exist hangs over every interaction we see, or even the moments that aren't interactions. For one of the great pleasures of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets lies in how it captures the noisy mess of conversation in a crowded bar, with voices fluctuating in loudness, often independently of who we see talking. It's a sound mix as bold in its lively clutter as anything since Nashville, and serving the same role of creating a purely democratic sonic space, where every voice is given equal emphasis and presence.

Quite a wonderful array of voices the film has given us, too. If the film has one structuring presence, it's Michael Martin, as a man who lives in the back room of the bar and spends the entire day slowly growing ever more drunk, regaling anyone who sits near him about his stalled-out career as an actor and the perils of allowing one's life to exist in stasis, getting pickled in a crummy bar. The question of where Michael goes after the Roaring 20s ceases to exists looms heavily over all of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (an early shot favors one of those tacky little "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" signs, and this feels like equal parts threat and declaration of mourning, and not all like a joke), and he becomes one of the constant faces anchoring the whole day of lost souls trying to talk their way around feeling lost. But really, every figure in the film, no matter how little time we get to know them, or even if we ever pick up their name, has the presence of a fully-realised human with a complex life. Which they are, of course, and this is where the Rosses gambit of casting barflies as barflies pays off; while the situation may be faked, the lives aren't, and while we're not seeing people genuinely in their own environment, we are seeing people swirl around each other like electrons, having conversations and swapping world views and just generally basking in each other's slovenly humanity.

It's a beautiful tribute to a pace of life fading already fading even before 2020 steamrolled over it, and the whole film has a distinct feeling capturing something that, even in 2016, simply shouldn't still exist: the film's titles are done in an unmistakable 1970s aesthetic, and the bar appears to have been left to its own devices for at least that long. The Rosses' gorgeously sloppy cinematography, which combines the raggedness of documentary camera work with the fogginess of a shoebox full of aging photographs, paints everything in a smeary, rose-colored patina of age. It's not exactly nostalgic, but it does leave the film feeling like it has been rescued from a time capsule, the images already starting to fall apart from whatever lost civilisation left behind this footage. There's never a point where the film stops itself cold to moralise about this, though it does leave us plenty of room to feel sad that spaces like the Roaring 20s are less common than they used to be, and that the cornucopia of different characters assembled in those space - some of them hilarious, some of them heartbreaking, some warmly likable, all of them painfully real and devoid of any kind of cinematic fiction - have fewer places to thus assemble. Mostly, though, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets just wants to watch, to let these people be their messy selves as honestly as they can, and simply for allowing humanity to happen naturally, and then to convey that humanity to us in a well-built package, the film is a deeply special and strange object, and would have been a highlight of any year, not just one as stripped clean of human contact as the one where it actually came out.