Prisoners of the Ghostland, 2021.
Directed by Sion Sono.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Charles Glover, Nick Cassavetes and Young Dais.
A criminal is tasked with travelling into an irradiated wasteland to recover the “granddaughter” of a tyrannical Governor.
When you sign up to watch a Nicolas Cage movie, you expect carnage. When you sign up to watch a Sion Sono movie, you expect carnage. When you combine the two, it’s difficult to see how the world will be able to cope with that much bedlam. Prisoners of the Ghostland certainly delivers on the madness, plunging the audience into a world of chaos, helmed with arresting style by Sono from a script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai. It takes big swings that don’t always land, but there’s no denying how gleefully it takes those swings.
Cage plays a character known only as Hero, who is incarcerated in the wake of a botched bank robbery which led to the death of a child. In a bizarre Japanese settlement – a strange mash-up of samurai and cowboy culture – established by The Governor (Bill Moseley), Hero is tasked with a dangerous mission into the surrounding, irradiated wasteland around the settlement. One of the Governor’s “granddaughters” – members of his harem – has escaped and, with explosive leather clothes to keep him in line, it’s Hero’s job to get Bernice (Sofia Boutella) back.
The most impressive thing about Prisoners of the Ghostland is that it uses Cage differently to other movies of its ilk. His persona is so gargantuan that it can often overwhelm any given film to the extent that it becomes a Nicolas Cage showcase rather than a movie in its own right. That does not happen with Ghostland, which overflows with style and ideas while carefully deploying Cage’s explosive performance style at opportune moments. It’s only in a Cage movie that Moseley’s bizarre expression “testicules” could be just the second strangest delivery of that word.
Sono’s visual panache is a delight to experience, with he and DP Sôhei Tanikawa finding a truly unusual approach to lighting. Sometimes Cage is silhouetted into complete blackness against the rising sun, whereas other occasions see him squaring up for a fight in the neon-lit environs of Samurai Town, with a glowing purple tree between himself and sword-wielding adversary Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi). The plotting has a tendency to wander in unruly directions and the likes of Moseley and Boutella are given very little to do, with the film trusting in visual flair over character and Sono’s style to keep the movie on track.
In fact, it might be a little too on track. There’s a sense to which this film exists squarely within the idea of the Cage brand, lacking the truly out-there instincts of some of Sono’s other works. Certainly, there’s nothing here to match the scratch-your-temple wildness of the first Sono movie I watched – his 2015 grindhouse horror tale Tag. By working in the English language and casting an A-lister – albeit one with a reputation for weirdness – he seems to subdue his spikier instincts.
But with all of that said, it means that Prisoners of the Ghostland might be an ideal entry point into the wackier excesses of Sono’s oeuvre. It’s more accessible than most of his work and sees Cage stretching every sinew of the unhinged charisma that makes him arguably the most idiosyncratic movie star on the planet today. And there won’t be many films this year in which an Oscar-winner’s left bollock blows up. That’s cinema worth treasuring, whether it fully delivers on its premise or not.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.