A Los Angeles ER surgeon Eileen Flax has her life turned upside down when she comes in contact with a raving patient one night who can only speak French. As the only doctor currently on staff who can understand him, she tries to get him to calm down, only for him to bite her on her ear for her troubles. The patient dies shortly after and the surgeon is later informed that the man was not your run-of-the-mill lunatic, but anthropologist Jean Charles Pommier, who had just moved into the city with his wife only a week earlier. Turns out Pommier is world renowned for his studies of nomadic tribes the world over. The other doctors are confused, as their tests show that despite his crazed state, there were no drugs in his system. But Dr. Flax soon realizes that his state of mind is the least of her concerns when she starts having lucid dreams and strange visions that appear to be causing her to relive the very confusing, and apparently dangerous, last week of Jean Pommier’s life.
Nomads is an American horror film from 1986 written and directed by John McTiernan in his feature film debut, though it ends up feeling more like a thriller than it does anything else. Which makes sense, as McTiernan is best known for his direction of action and thriller films such as Predator, Die Hard and Hunt for Red October. He is not, however, known so much for horror films or his writing skill, and after watching Nomads I can see why. The film has a lot of neat ideas, but most of those ideas feel as if they think they’re a lot more brilliant than they actually end up being.
For starters, it has a unique framing device that feels both clever and overly complicated. Nomads is essentially two separate stories of two separate people that end up converging by the end of the film. After that little love-bite from Pommier, Dr. Flax (and thus, the audience) is force-fed flashbacks of the last 168 hours of his life. Meanwhile, she spends her time wandering around town in a perpetual daze, piecing all of these confusing memories together. But due to the abrupt changes in perspective and editing, you’re never 100% sure who’s perspective it is that you’re seeing, and for a great while you’re not even sure if these are genuine memories, or just delusions of someone who’s clearly overworked and sleep deprived. This admittedly helps add to the film’s tension, but also to the general confusion about what’s going on. By the end of the film, I started to wonder if the role of the doctor was even necessary. She has no connection to Pommier, and thus no personal involvement in what’s going on. She’s just sort of…there, as if her sole purpose is simply to be a convoluted framing device. If they just had to make the story non-linear, at the very least, that particular role may have been better filled by, say, Pommier’s wife, who would have helped to add a much needed emotional connection to the events taking place on screen.
But that might make the film make more sense, and who wants that?
Alright, calm down. Keep your damn role.
Another aspect of the film that I like the idea of, but doesn’t quite work out, is the Nomads themselves. They’re tied to an Inuit legend regarding evil spirits, which is a cool and intriguing concept, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Up until the end they come across as more annoying than truly menacing. They’re portrayed as a bunch of punk rockers in black clothes and studs and all that, and yeah, I know punk rockers could freak people out back in the 80s, but today most people wouldn’t bat an eye at these guys. Hell, even in the movie most people don’t bat an eye at them either, and that’s exactly the point. They look more silly than serious, and they spend their time roaming around, not wanting to be bothered. Don’t bother them and, chances are, they won’t bother you. They’re like little wandering poltergeists with leather fetishes and respect for state jurisdiction. The only reason they even get Pommier’s attention is that they spray painted the house he and his wife are staying in. Now, a normal person would have contacted the police and their real-estate agent and called it a day, but our anthropologist friend decides that’s not good enough, grabs a camera and stalks them for 30+ hours instead. I mean, seriously, WTF? One-two hours would show an inquisitive nature, but 30 hours is just being a creeper. Anthropologist or not, that kind of behavior would be all kinds of bizarre and disturbing in and of itself, even if they weren’t evil spirits, but since they are, Pommier basically pissed them off and sealed his own fate. It almost makes me feel bad for the damn ghosts who just want to be left the fuck alone.
This isn’t considered healthy behavior in LA, unless you’re gunning to be a tabloid reporter.
Moral of the story: Don’t be a weirdo and follow Mary Woronov around with a camera.
Another odd aspect of the film is some of the decisions regarding certain characters. While the acting in the film is pretty good, the film makes the strange choice of having the Pommier’s be French. Which would be fine if the actors playing those roles were French (or at least natively French speaking), but alas, they are not, and the viewer is forced to watch two non-French actors pull off French accents with varying degrees of success. Anna Maria Monticelli does an okay job (I guess), but let’s just say that listening to Pierce Brosnan attempt at a French accent is almost as lamentable as listening to him try to sing. He ends up dropping the accent every 10th word or so, which winds up being more than a bit distracting. Add to that English actress Lesley-Anne Down playing an American doctor, and one has to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to force the entire main cast to speak in accents foreign to the one they already had. The nationalities of the characters are absolutely inconsequential to the plot, so what was the point of making everything harder on the cast?
Yes, you’re cute together. Now. Shut. Up.
The one thing the movie excels at is the visuals. Say what you will about the production oddities and the plot, but I don’t think anyone could argue that the film doesn’t look good. It has a wonderful visual style and the atmosphere perfectly encapsulates a growing sense of dread as it is slowly revealed to you what’s been going on. The movie often switches between a ‘real’ world aesthetic and an often dreamlike state. Many of the ‘real’ scenes feel cold (even during the day), and the often dimly-lit, gritty set pieces create an ever increasing sense of claustrophobia. And the shots of LA itself make the city look hot, and grimy and never ending, almost like a prison one cannot escape. Then there are the more surreal aspects, the ones that are meant to represent the horrors of what lie beneath the cities venier. These scenes are often cold and deserted, purposefully highlighted, blue tinted and filled with a bombastic hard-rock, often screeching, audio track (supplied by Bill Conti and Ted Nugent), meant to highlight scenes of shock and complement the movie’s non-linear narrative (though it doesn’t necessarily help it). In short, every visual is purposeful and artfully planned, and even though I wasn’t always sure what was going on, the visuals were enough to keep me suitably intrigued.
Nomads ends up being an interesting experiment that fails because it was trying too hard. It has a lot of good ideas, but ultimately ends up being a bit of an incoherent mess. The narrative framing device involving both Pommier and Flax is clever, but the juxtaposition can be confusing, and Flax’s half of the storyline winds up being boring, and thus, completely uninteresting. The titular nomads themselves may be visually pleasing, and the characters themselves are entertaining enough despite not having a single line of dialogue, but they lack the kind of sinister vibe that would have added any horror to this ‘horror’ movie. Even the ending, which would have been a good twist, ends up falling flat, because all of the build up that could have laid its foundation was either cut from the final edit or was lost along the way in the muddle that ends up being this movie’s plot. All that said, I still ended up enjoying Nomads. It’s the kind of movie that thinks it’s better than the sum of its parts, and I’m convinced that there is indeed a better movie in there somewhere, but the film probably needs a couple more script rewrites in order to find it. If you like surrealist, artsy thrillers and don’t mind the non-linear storytelling (or the vague subtext regarding lost souls and their displacement upon moving to the big city), then Nomads can be an entertaining way to spend 90 mins.
Nomads is available for streaming or rent on a variety of platforms.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.