Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

With Nicolas Cage on a winning streak with Mandy and Color Out of Space, his appearance in Japanese director Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland made the film a hot ticket at its Sundance premiere and although it might not quite be ‘one of [Cage’s] most unhinged performances to date’ that the PR blurb suggested it’s a very weird and entertaining film indeed and I really enjoyed it.

Although Cage’s presence might be the entry point for most viewers we’re definitely in the universe of Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Antiporno), an eccentric, colourful and bizarre universe brimming with ideas and kinetic energy. The film’s been accurately described as east-meets-west, a kind of samurai spaghetti western. These two normally immiscible genres coalesce seamlessly and it’s much more than just a knowingly postmodern amalgam.

It’s not the first time a director has seen such potential to transplant between these genres: A Fistful of Dollars is famously a direct remake of Kurosawa’s samurai Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven (a far less interesting yet popular western) has a similar genesis in The Seven Samurai, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film that tries to merge the two into a single production. Sion blends the tropes and joys of both, and adds so much delightful idiosyncrasy it doesn’t feel derivative.

Nick Cassavetes and Nic Cage in by Sion Sono (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Notorious bank robber ‘Hero’ (Cage) is sprung from jail by the Governor of Samurai Town (Bill Moseley) and is given a mission to win his freedom. The Governor’s eldest granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has escaped the town and Hero must find her and bring her back within five days, otherwise the bombs stitched into the black leather onesie that the Governor has compelled Hero to wear will detonate. Hero must travel to Ghostland, a kind of otherworldly irradiated junkyard where time stands still, to recover Bernice and perhaps inspire its inhabitants to revolt against Governor’s rule.

This bizarre film is jam-packed with visual invention, the dusty, neon-glowing Samurai Town – not much more than a single street – is a dazzling mix of colour, sound and movement, populated by geisha and swordsmen. The Ghostland set is a post-industrial wasteland with a stupendous clocktower that resembles a Mayan pyramid and with a population straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Sono has liberally dressed his cluttered sets with eccentricities and oddball characters, and part of the enjoyment of this film is the impressive world-building. In this it resembles the recycled resourcefulness of some Terry Gilliam films, stuffed full of visual ideas.

Escape from Samurai Town – Prisoners of the Ghostland

There’s a lot of deliciously absurdist and low-brow humour that hits the spot if you’re tuned into the film’s mood; I often found myself laughing out loud. The film seems destined to have a long shelf life on the midnight movie circuit and I really look forward to get the chance to rewatch it in a crowded cinema. There’s some very enjoyable dialogue and inventive moments that are delightful and surprising.

This is a boldly ambitious film with a larger-than-life style and Cage fits the bill. As in both Mandy and Color Out of Space his acting is initially restrained (for Cage at least), and this brings a deadpan humour and self-awareness to the film’s absurdities. That said, those seeking amplified Cage-rage moments won’t be disappointed either and there’s a particular highlight that seems destined to become the source of many future memes.

The rest of the cast are similarly entertaining. Amongst the western cast, B-movie veteran Bill Moseley is charismatically evil as the Governor and Nick Cassavetes (who previously shared acting credits with Cage in Face/Off) has a strong, albeit mostly wordless presence as Hero’s bank-robbing former partner-in-crime Psycho. I was less familiar with the Japanese cast although I gather it includes a sprinkling of Sono regulars. One standout was Tak Sakaguchi, a regular in the films of Ryuhei Kitamura, who has a real presence playing Yasujiro, a violent criminal in Samurai Town, and is captivating in a couple of balletic martial arts action sequences. Only Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis, Gaspar Noe’s Climax) is mildly disappointing as Bernice, slightly lacking in presence in contrast to the other deliriously over-the-top performances, although she gets a wonderful Django-inspired moment near the end.

Sofia Boutella as Bernice in Prisoners of the Ghostland

Layered into all this gleeful abandon there’s a slightly melancholic tone to this film. Several of the characters are prisoners of time, literally in the case of Cage’s five-day mission, but more subtly for some of the others. Sono takes great delight with his theme of time, from the giant clock in Ghostland to a couple of delightfully incongruous songs in the soundtrack. There’s also a pervading sense of nuclear tragedy; a large mural of an orange mushroom cloud prefigures the revelation that a nuclear explosion has damaged many people’s lives.

That nuclear theme perhaps gains more poignancy knowing that the film’s production moved to Japan. It was originally planned to be shot in Mexico (this might explain the Mayan influence on the Ghostland set design) until Sono suffered a heart attack and the production was moved at Cage’s suggestion to Sono’s native Tokyo .

This is a messy, gonzo movie and admittedly it doesn’t always work. It became a little repetitive in the middle and the production design began to lose some of its invention when we spend perhaps just a little too much time in some of the sets. I’d have liked to have seen more of the tantalising characters fleshed out a little. The main plot is straightforward enough, but the subplots are a bit muddled, although mostly this is disguised by the film’s kinetic energy.

But Prisoners of the Ghostland is enormous fun with a unique style and vision. If you can savour its absurdist energy, you – like Nicolas Cage – will have a ball.

Ghostland is a strange place

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