Director John McTiernan is currently trapped in the court system and just started serving time in prison, for reasons so technical they make my brain hurt. He didn’t kill anyone, didn’t steal anything, there were no illegal substances involved, no weapons, no insider trading, no counterfeits, no reckless driving. He inaccurately reported how many times he hired a private detective. That’s it. That’s what’s kept him in court and away from Hollywood for the last decade. Reading up on it, it’s the kind of governmental madness that turned me into an anarchist in the first place.
McTiernan was one of the most influential action filmmakers of the late 80s and early 90s, with films like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for the Red October (1990), Last Action Hero (1993) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). Pretty much everything wrong with action films today is from people who saw McTiernan’s filmography and went “hey, let’s do the exact opposite of this guy!” Sure, he also did Rollerball (2002), but you’re allowed a few stinkers when the rest of your work is so strong. I wait patiently when all this court shit clears up and McTiernan can come back to movies and show us how to make a proper Die Hard again.
For the first stop on the Balderdash Movie Map, we’re going all the way back to McTiernan’s first film, Nomads (1986). It’s not what you’d expect if you’re familiar with McTiernan. It not being an action film is one thing, it not being a genre film of any kind is another. As you probably noticed from the poster that it was advertised as a supernatural horror film, but that doesn’t seem accurate, at least in the mainstream terms of what a supernatural horror film is. It’s not a Poltergeist or a Nightmare on Elm Street or a Hellraiser, it has more in common with Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf than with any of those. This is a film about restlessness and dread and confusion, characters remain adrift from other and struggle to make personal connections, the actual supernatural threat is a slow-burner, it remains in the margins and only threatens to come crashing in when the characters poke at it with a stick.
The film opens with a black-and-white still of an eskimo, his face hiding in the shadows of the hood of his fur coat. We are then pulled into that shadow like it’s a rabbit hole, falling out of one world and into another. We end up in modern-day Los Angeles, filmed in soft light and deep shadows. A ringing telephone wakes up Dr. Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), who has been working almost twenty-four hours and is trying to find any little hole in the wall to catch a quick nap. Things start to get hectic when they wheel in a crazed man speaking only French, and when Flax tries to care for him, he responds by scratching her face and then falling over dead for no apparent reason. Flax is unnerved, and starts trying to piece together who this man was, but is quickly undercut when she’s invaded by visions of the man’s life a week before his death, visions that wreck her body, causing violent hemorrhaging.
French sociologist Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan) and his wife Niki (Anna Maria Monticelli) recently moved to Los Angeles for a teaching job. It doesn’t take long for their home to be vandalized, and Pommier catches that itch of following other cultures and documenting them, only this time instead of tracking the Inuits, he’s tracking a local group of leather-clad punks, who swim through the city in a van and seem to go unnoticed by the world around them, at least until they decide to terrorize seemingly random victims. They’re nomads, without a home, continuously moving forward. But even more then that, when Pommier develops the candid photos he had taken of the group, he discovers they don’t appear on film. That’s when you have that ah-ha moment when you realize that the eskimo we had seen earlier was not hiding in the shadows of his hood, his person didn’t not appear on the film at all, a ghost filling a fur coat.
The supernatural elements of the film are downplayed as much as possible. Outside of them not appearing on film like a vampire, the nomadic punks seem mortal enough. Their threat comes from a deep cultural fear of youthful rebellion and anarchy. One of them simply being in proximity, making no threatening gestures and without saying a word, is enough to make Pommier react violently to stop them. I, for one, am all for youthful rebellion and anarchy, but damn, the film does a good job at selling it as a force of nature, a storm on the horizon that finally hits in the film’s finale.
You are always off-balance watching this, the constant cutting between Flax wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze and her forced flashbacks of Pommier’s final moments disorient and you’ve never entirely sure what is real and what is hallucinatory. This is a film that tries to leave you feeling cold and largely succeeding. It would be easy to call this film “art house,” but I feel that’s inaccurate, a descriptor in hindsight. This is a mainstream film, but that era of mainstream is almost thirty years old now, the audience willing to sit through such a cerebral slow-burning creeper have gotten old and has been replaced rapid-fire editing, shaky-cam and found footage, a desire for intimate immediacy rather than festering alienation.
John McTiernan came from the same era of filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the first film school students who watched a bunch of old and/or foreign films and took what they liked from them to infuse the modern movie scene with new life. Not in a Quentin Tarantino way of just out-right lifting images, but an adopting on styles and iconography, like how German Expressionism shook up American silent films. All of McTiernan’s best films have a foreign element to them, from French teachers and Inuit spirits to Central American jungles to German thieves to Russian submarines.
I’m surprised, I was not expecting such a good and interesting film right out of the gate for this project. It wasn’t well-reviewed in it’s time, and yes, there are problematic elements. Pierce Brosnan sounds a bit silly trying to force a French accent, even more so when watching this film post-James Bond. Some of the old green screening effects don’t hold up too well nowadays, and I do have to question the decision to have the climax of the film happen during the day, punks are scarier when they’re leaping out of the shadows. But despite that, I think it’s time for the film to get a proper reevaluation, it really is something else entirely.
Nomads is available on DVD and Netflix Instant.