John McTiernan, director of Hollywood blockbusters Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), and The Hunt for Red October (1990), began his movie career rather more humbly with the flawed and eccentric but nonetheless entertaining debut Nomads (1986). Notable as McTiernan’s only credit as a screenwriter, Nomads was eviscerated by the critics when first released, and still has only a 13% green splat at Rotten Tomatoes. “Was there any sense in it?” asks leading lady Lesley-Anne Down in an interview included on the Nomads Blu-ray. “I don’t think there was very much sense in it at all for anybody.” Is Down correct in dismissing the film as a shallowly offbeat curio – and were the critics who panned the movie motivated only by an objective assessment of its merits?
Nomads stars Pierce Brosnan as a French anthropologist, Jean Charles Pommier, who in the opening sequence dies in the care of Down’s character, Dr. Eileen Flax, in a Los
Angeles hospital. He appears in a beaten, bloodied, and seemingly insane state, and his enigmatic last words initiate what will be a strange paranormal ordeal for Flax, who over the course of the film will both investigate and experience what befell Pommier, with most of the story told in flashback. The anthropologist and his wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) had only recently moved to the U.S. and purchased a house that, as it turns out, has a horrible history attached to it. Soon after moving in, the Pommiers discover Mansonesque graffiti on the garage door and more graffiti inside: “Gutman’s a Hero”. The home, they learn, was the site of a horrific child murder, and a band of elusive antisocial misfits who live out of a van have adopted the house as a holy site.
Pommier, being an anthropologist, follows the titular “nomads” around Los Angeles with the intention of documenting and studying them in order to gain a better idea of the threat he faces and to understand “what kind of people could think of a murder as some sort of shrine.” He determines that none of them have employment and watches them from a distance as they laze at the beach, party, and generally terrorize people. The nomads become aware of Pommier’s surveillance after he witnesses them murder a man and put the body in a dumpster. After first being pursued by them and escaping, Pommier again works his way into proximity with the group – at which point they seem to accept his presence and stage an impromptu photo shoot, with one of them, Mary, played by Mary Woronov, doing an exotic dance. When Pommier develops the film, however, he finds that none of the nomads appear in the exposures, which invites a comparison with vampires – although the nomads, who have no problem frolicking in the daylight, are clearly not vampires at least as conventionally depicted.
These quasi-vampires – vampire lore comprising a traditional understanding of the eternal Jew – are nomads, or what Pommier, drawing on Eskimo legends, describes as an urban variety of Innuat. As related in the film, “It has to do with wandering the desert. […] It’s all the same. Nomads live in deserts, whether it’s a desert of ice or sand or whatever doesn’t make a difference. […] They were supposedly hostile spirits. According to the myth, they were capable of assuming a human form” and traveled from place to place, bringing ruin and madness with them wherever they went. As Pommier tells his wife:
None of this may mean anything. None of it at all. […] But I may have found people who are living outside – outside any structure. They do not participate. No exchange, no constraints. They resort to violence with no provocation and then get away with it. It is as if to the official world they did not exist.
All of this rootlessness, in combination with the confluence of ritual, child murder, the reverence for a killer with the Jewish name Gutman, as well as the general depravity and destructiveness, contributes to an accumulation of clues that the nomads may be the Jews. Curiously, composer Bill Conti mentions during his Blu-ray interview that the soundtrack includes what he describes as a “Middle Eastern sound” – though to this reviewer’s untrained ear such a flavoring is difficult to detect in the synth-and-guitars music cues.
“You must not try to fight them,” a sinister nun (Blue Velvet’s Frances Bay) tells Pommier. This encounter takes place in a dilapidated cathedral where, in a sequence of nightmarish phantasmagoria, a flock of satanic women in habits is seen running through the halls in masks, one of them flashing her bare breasts at Pommier – all of which points to a faith corrupted. Dancing Mary, the nomad portrayed by Mary Woronov, wears a cross that glints in the sun, and later, when she is seen at night, she wears an even larger crucifix so that the viewer can hardly help but notice it as she cavorts like a stripper. Are these Christian elements ironic and indicative of cultural subversion, or have these been added as fig leaves to hide the almost naked Jewishness of the menace? Woronov’s features, it must be noted, are rather evil and arguably Semitic-looking.
In a key moment toward the end of the film, Pommier says to his wife with an air of wistfulness as they survey the Los Angeles skyline from a rooftop, “We are so very far from home, you know. All of us.” He laments his “bourgeois” life in a “civilized” world – in short, bemoans his condition of rootless cosmopolitanism. Both he and his kindred spirit the doctor, another childless middle-aged professional in the process of moving into a new and foreign home, have agricultural surnames, Pommier (“apple tree”) and Flax, that betray their simple origins and relatedness to the earth – Flax also connoting blonde and distinctively northern European looks – that set them apart from the dark, mysterious wanderers who move in their midst. Pommier’s polyglot cosmopolitanism, peripatetic ways, and sophistication nevertheless present a thematic parallel with the lifestyle of the nomads, so that it comes as no surprise when Pommier finally succumbs to them. The horror of Nomads is loss of a sense of belonging to a place and one’s own native culture – the horror of an alienated world in which, for instance, Dr. Flax’s colleague Cassie Miller (Jeannie Elias) complains about the “meshuggenah lunatics” who people the city. Whatever the meaning of the film, it may be worth observing that it is set in the entertainment capital of the world and that the final nomad antagonist Dr. Flax encounters is unable to pursue her beyond the California state line.