Nomads. 1986. Directed & Written by John McTiernan.
Starring Lesley-Anne Down, Pierce Brosnan, Anna Maria Monticelli, Adam Ant, Mary Woronov, Héctor Mercado, Josie Cotton, & Frank Doubleday.
Cinema VII/Producers Sales Organization
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Because of Nomads, John McTiernan got the gig as director of Predator (Arnold Schwarzenegger was impressed so much he convinced producers to hire McTiernan), and of course he went on to give us one of the greatest, if not THE greatest action movie of all time, Die Hard. Apart from being intriguing horror, this movie played a huge part in McTiernan’s trajectory as a director.
What makes Nomads so special is it’s a cerebral modern Gothic based on the collision of past and present in big cities, such as Los Angeles, California where the story’s set. The screenplay involves a French anthropologist named Jean Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan) and his wife Veronique (Anna Maria Monticelli) moving to LA, where he goes insane from his work. He winds up in the emergency room of a hospital where he dies, though not before speaking to Dr. Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), who remains obsessed by him after his death.
Through Dr. Flax the audience experiences Pommier’s descent into madness after he runs into a gang whom he believes are evil entities. This takes us on a journey across a real and simultaneously mythological Los Angeles, where what was and what is now come together violently. McTiernan’s story involves the ghosts of past and modernity intertwined affecting the present. This is a horror about our proximity to the past, at all times, even as post-modern people. We can never escape what came before, which is exactly what Pommier discovers firsthand.
“People don’t realise that this is a city built on a desert. Just try to think of it as extended parking for the beach.”
When Pommier comes into the ER he meets Dr. Flax briefly in between hysterical outbursts. In this moment they make a connection. The city’s full of connections everywhere we go, it’s all but literally impossible in a big city to escape people, even in your own home— often today people live in apartments, even in houses they’re only feet away from their neighbour. Pommier’s modern haunting transfers to Dr. Flax, as she takes on his struggle throughout the rest of the movie. She experiences remnants of his life— the past— filtered through her own present. This is our first look at the way in which the spirit of old places, people, and events linger on in city spaces.
As an anthropologist, Pommier studies various cultures. In particular he focuses on nomad myths and studied the Inuit. With help, Dr. Flax later starts figuring out Pommier was studying a group of nomads “in the middle of a modern city.” They shared the distinctive characteristics of typical nomads, such as living outside the city institutions/structures. However, there’s also supposed Inuit mythology— not actually part of their culture in real life— about “hostile spirits” who come to “inhabit places of past calamity” and they “brought disaster and madness to any humans that fell in with them.”
There’s a reference to Inuat— when you search the internet it’s generally spelled as Einwetok, though it sounds more like Inuat to Father Gore— which is related to actual Inuit beliefs. Inuat, literally meaning ‘possessor’ or ‘master,’ is “a spirit or soul that exists in all people, animals, lake” and so on. In this sense, it’s a lingering energy, exactly what these evil spirit nomads in the city are— remnants of the past, old horrors of the city, and all the negative energies carrying on into the present. This is where the story’s Gothic elements are strongest. These nomads, like the past itself, are akin to a disease infecting people in a cycle, from one to the next across the closeness in proximity of people in the city, just as Pommier passes the visions of his past to Dr. Flax.
“There are places with pasts… places with secrets. Things collect.”
Another compelling aspect of McTiernan’s screenplay is his use of American stereotypes. He’s not doing this to be ignorant. Likewise it helps one of the urban nomads is played by British rocker Adam Ant. Pommier sarcastically tells his wife: “Je suis American.” He goes on as she laughs saying he’ll immerse himself in the American culture of suburbia, including “hamburgers wrapped in plastic.” The nomads themselves ride around in a black van, the typical image of danger in American suburbs. Also, the nomads are a gang looking like part-bikers/part-punk band. These evil nomad bikers encompass violence, sex, rock n’ roll. Moreover, in biker culture, nomads are those without an official patch, unaffiliated with a specific crew.
All of this acts as critique of all the ways urbanism in America has erased any kind of culture Americans could’ve hoped for, replacing it with capitalism and consumerism. The urban nomads of LA here can be taken as an all encompassing Americanism— all the -isms of a colonial superpower, the old fashioned nasty imperialist spirit of the USA.
The crowned jewel of the nomads is their connection to pop culture history. After the Pommiers move into their LA suburb, they experience an act of vandalism by the urban nomads. On the house, two words are spray painted: PIGS and KILL. This is a reference to the Manson Family murders. Here, the nomads embody a notion of evil spirits lingering in places of past disaster. They’re taking on the qualities of one of LA’s most infamous events— there was also a murder in the house where Jean Charles and Veronique moved— as the past comes back to haunt Pommier in the present, eventually overtaking him mentally, as well as physically.
Normally the image of a bearded Brosnan— in leather and studs, no less— sitting on a motorcycle, leering at passersby would be a sexy one. But it’s not in Nomads— okay, maybe it still is. The image haunts Father Gore.
Fittingly for the urban Gothic themes of modernity being encroached on by the violence and pain of the past, the neighbourhood where Pommier lived is overrun by the nomad biker gang. His wife and Dr. Flax are forced to flee the city, where they see Pommier himself gone from French anthropologist to an American-looking biker, stripped of any defining French culture he might’ve embodied earlier. He’s part of the living landscape(s) of tragedy, just like the murders in their house, like the Manson murders, and so much other macabre history in Los Angeles.
Because the past never dies. Evil spirits linger on in the spaces and places where horrific acts occurred, like a stain on the cities in which we live. That is, if you believe in that sort of thing. Nomads does an impressive job of getting its themes across with power. Brosnan does a top notch job drawing the viewer into Pommier’s anxious state, and Down’s intensity makes the torturous experience of Dr. Flax near unbearable at times. Their talents are a potent mix alongside McTiernan’s focus on modern America, Gothic post-modernity, and the negative psychic energy left in places of distress. More people ought to know this movie. The ending’s one of those spooky finishes that’ll stick with you.