Harsh Texture


A anthropologist's obsession with tracking a mysterious gang in his new home of Los Angeles may imply that Nomads is made of the same stuff as Death Wish, but John McTiernan's debut feature is a canny repudiation of those themes. He questions the morals of a protagonist desperate to seek and search out a struggle, whatever the costs to his professional and family life.

John McTiernan would soon graduate to be a premiere action film director, rattling off Predator, Die Hard, and the Hunt for Red October in rapid succession. Nomads is no action film, but that may make it better for McTiernan fans. This is clearly of a piece with classic McTiernan and its interesting to see his favorite themes explored outside of his typical genre.

At its core Nomads is an examination of the fragile male ego. Jean Charles Pommier’s spent a decade living all over the world as an anthropologist studying tribal and nomadic societies. He and his wife move to Los Angeles to transition to a quiet life teaching in a university. He speaks of his new life of “5 hours of work a day” as if a cancer diagnosis.

This is a man of action, restless, an adventurer.

Pommier immediately becomes fixated on the neighborhood gang. While unpacking at his new house the gang tags his garage with graffiti. Pommier grabs his camera and gives chase, leaving his wife without a word. For thirty hours he traces their movements from beach to bar to gas station, getting closer to them, getting clearer pictures of their debauchery.

The gang seems both aware of Pommier’s presence while remaining utterly aloof. They casually start posing for his pictures while acting like slumming rock stars.

Reporting back on his expedition to his doting wife, Pommier exclaims: “They’re Nomads!” Just like the ones he’s tracked across the world. His tone is equal parts fear and enchantment at the thought of this society living in modern, urban, world.

The Nomads start a cat and mouse game with Pommier, but their modus operandi is more to invade his space not to physically harm them. Their strategy though further triggers Pommier who seems to have no qualms about physical violence. In the slyest touch the Nomads don’t even seem particularly upset when Pommier starts attacking them. They seem creepily amused by the whole affair.

Nomads is a low budget production, one where every dollar is on the screen. McTiernan doesn’t indulge in any action sequences here. That decision was probably dictated by the budget. McTiernan instead crafts a very stylish and sleek thriller, making the most of its hazy LA setting.

Pommier’s residence is one of the great cinematic houses. It’s not fully glass, but most of the house seems to be constructed from windows. They beam in blue moonlight and allow Pommier a great vantage of his otherwise unremarkable suburban neighborhood. There’s at least two narrow plunging staircases, one leading down to the photo lab and another up to the safety and serenity of his bed.

The world of Nomads coincides with the huge crime spike in the late seventies and eighties. A cursory glance of the plot summary may lead to you to link this film to Death Wish or Class of 1984 where other straight-laced men of high social status are drawn into a war with the cultural avatars of urban crime. Nomads is more interesting, if just as tied to that era. Pommier acts as the aggressor for most of the film, and responds to intimidation with murder. The previous films made their protagonists suffer much more greatly before having them seek revenge. Nomads, through Pommier’s eyes looks at gangs and violence longingly, as a salve to mid life crisis. Its better to spend eternity as a vengeful demon than succumb to a posh day job and the pleasures of marriage. The generic hair-metal score by Bill Conti and Ted Nugent will wear out its welcome well before Nomad’s premise.

Published: Jan. 14, 2019, 1:26 p.m.
Updated: Jan. 14, 2019, 1:30 p.m.