Prisoners of the Ghostland represents a perfect artistic marriage: the gonzo Japanese auteur Sion Sono (Suicide Club, Love Exposure, Tag) and “the California Klaus Kinski”, Nicolas Cage. While Sono’s English language debut may not fulfill the potential such a collaboration promises, it sure has its charms.
A cosmic gumbo of different cult tropes – think samurai films, spaghetti westerns and Mad Max energy combined – Prisoners of the Ghostland is set in a bizarre post-apocalyptic world. We open in a town that’s a mixture of feudal Japan and the Wild West. Beyond its gates lies the titular Ghostland; in this world exists a bizarre society that has sprung up following a radioactive catastrophe, as well as the monstrous “ghosts”.
Nicolas Cage plays Hero, who is brought to the town by the authorities after a botched heist. The Governor, played by Bill Moseley (a familiar face to fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), has summoned Hero to rescue his granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella of 2018’s Climax), who is missing in the Ghostland. So, naturally he fits Hero with a leather suit decked out with explosive devices (including testicular bombs, of course), a conceit largely reminiscent of Escape from New York.
Hero has five days to bring Bernice back. If he fails, the bombs will explode. After three days she must input her voice, because if not, they’ll explode. If he becomes sexually aroused or has violent thoughts towards a woman…well, you get the picture.
When it comes to critiquing Prisoners of the Ghostland, I shall – In true western style – give you the good, the bad, but thankfully not the ugly.
The Good: The film has thrills once it reaches the later acts: Sono orchestrates an impressive bank robbery sequence and demonstrates his talent for surreal imagery. I’ll get to Cage in a moment, but the supporting cast here are all astounding. Character actor Moseley is given a welcome role and makes the most of it, giving a fantastically demented performance. As for Boutella, she invests her performance with far more emotional gravity than the script offers.
Cage is an actor whom I usually love watching and have defended for years. Actors like Ethan Hawke have praised his “nouveau shamanic” acting style because it moves the form away from naturalism. I respect Cage’s decision to swing for the fences, even if it means looking silly half the time. For years the actor’s money problems meant he was trapped in low-rent productions in Eastern Europe, but since receiving well-earned praise for his performances in Joe and Mandy, directors are beginning to recognise his skill once again.
Unfortunately, many of these films have merely traded on his status as a living meme. In this film there are moments of “Cage rage” brilliance, like him screaming “testiclllleeee” hysterically. I believe it’s impossible for Cage to be anything but committed. However, his part is so rote, it’s as if his character from Willy’s Wonderland has become slightly more talkative and dumped into an acid western.
The Bad: The film has so many self-conscious affectations that it sometimes got in the way of my investment in the picture’s momentum. Sono’s world building may benefit from impressive production design, but so much of it makes no narrative sense. I had no investment in several supporting characters. The film relies on drip-feeding the audience information through flashbacks, and it starts to feel a little tiresome after a while.
I felt that Sono’s 2017 film Tag was unlike anything else I’d seen before, but I can’t say the same about Prisoners of the Ghostland. Despite the director’s ambitious vision, there is simply so much that feels reminiscent of the Mad Max franchise. I really wanted to love this film, but I didn’t. But hey, if you’re a Cage convert, Prisoners of the Ghostland is worth a look.