Reflecting on the enigmatic 1986 supernatural mystery
I tend to gravitate towards genre cinema that isn’t necessarily perfect but rather is flawed, fascinating and enigmatic; movies that reflect upon the mysteries of the human condition by shielding their truths in a thin sheen of bloody mess and abstract fantasy. I like films that are hazy, a bit out of focus, out of reach; pictures that you keep revisiting in order to unravel their secrets, even if they originally set out to offer very few. John McTiernan’s 1986 head scratcher NOMADS is one such feature film, a picture that feels like a dream. And like a dream, the effect of NOMADS is subjective and can’t properly be articulated.
But I’ll try.
During a long, graveyard shift in the ER, pretty young Doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) encounters a beaten, bloody man (Pierce Brosnan) who initially appears to be a stark raving- mad transient. When the run down, sleep deprived MD leans in to check his pupils, the pair momentarily lock eyes before the wild-eyed lunatic bursts from his gurney, locks his jaw around her neck and whispers something in French before finally collapsing, dead.
Shaken, Dr. Flax is treated for her minor wounds and left to lie down and collect her bearings before, almost immediately, she begins to experience vivid hallucinations that send her into violent fits. As she soon discovers, the drooling madman that attacked her wasn’t a madman at all but rather a famous Canadian anthropologist named Jean Charles Pommier, a man who after traveling the earth studying nomadic cultures had finally settled down at the request of his gorgeous wife (the persuasively beautiful Anna Maria Monticelli), into a cushy teaching gig in LA.
Apparently, shortly before his death, Pommier had been tracking a leather-clad gang of street punks (whose ranks include 80’s rocker Adam Ant and cult film heroine Mary Woronov) drifting around his home. Turns out these homeless, rootless ruffians are in actuality a tribe of evil, nomadic spirits, the same breed of ancient, wandering souls he’d been obsessively following his whole life and are now hell-bent on driving him mad. The bite that Jean Charles gives Dr. Flax inexplicably causes her to aggressively relive – and we, the audience along with her – the memories leading up to his final sad state. Soon enough, she too becomes sucked into the Nomads’ secret, clandestine, twilight world.
I saw NOMADS theatrically in 1986 ( I bought a ticket for the still-running, PG rated BACK TO THE FUTURE and snuck into the curiously R-rated film instead) and I can clearly remember the disorienting effect it had on me. See, NOMADS doesn’t really make much sense, not in a linear, easily digestible way, anyway. The odd narrative structure – with its flashbacks within flashbacks, ever shifting points of view and lack of clear explanation as to the Nomads’ history or true intent – made for a rather infuriating initial viewing experience. But I soon discovered that I could not stop thinking about it. I became obsessed with it. When it arrived on home video months later, I watched and re-watched it numerous times, trying in vain to decipher its clues and determine what made the movie resonate so much with me.
But NOMADS has something. An aura. A lyricism, a kind of poetry. It has that certain– as Pommier himself might say, je ne sais quoi, that elevates it beyond simple 80’s genre potboiler and into the fluid, subconscious realms of the surreal.
I can tell you that I absolutely adore Bill (ROCKY) Conti’s urgent, erotic synth and guitar score – especially the opening theme and closing hard rock collaboration with the wingnut, bow-hunting guitar wizard Ted Nugent. I can tell you that both Down and Brosnan are magnetic in a pair of extremely difficult roles that require them to achieve a bizarre sort of character symbiosis. I can tell you that the cold, washed out look of the film (perhaps the mark of a low budget, perhaps not) is claustrophobic and unsettling in its otherworldly, dim lit way.
It’s difficult to believe that McTiernan would go on to create an endless spate of high octane, considerably less challenging, popular action pictures like DIE HARD and THE 13th WARRIOR because his maiden cinematic voyage is a work of such strikingly haunting and original moxy, such an intelligent, sophisticated, offbeat and mysterious psychological /supernatural thriller. Maybe the fact that NOMADS made about 10 cents at the box office scared McTiernan off from continuing in this daring, metaphysical fantasy vein.
I’m not entirely sure if this is a “good” movie or a “bad” movie but you know what? I don’t really care.