New Releases: Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) - Reviewed



Actor Nicolas Cage has taken a fascinating trajectory with his career over the past ten years, opting to take roles in wild and weird genre films and working with a multitude of styles and directors. In Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) his team-up with with prolific Japanese director Sion Sono seemed simultaneously surprising and expected, with Sono having a penchant for the bizarre and surreal and Cage being willing to go all out in any role regardless of the material. Unfortunately, this combo doesn't completely work for this film as the narrative is too haphazard to gel together into a cohesive story, but the visuals and Cage's frenetic performance is enough to keep the film interesting and entertaining all the way through.

Cage plays Hero, a bank robber who is jailed after a violent robbery and held in Samurai Town, a frontier town that is a fusion of western and samurai aesthetic. The Governor (Bill Moseley) tells Hero that he will set him free if he will go into the Ghostland to find his adopted daughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The Ghostland is a dilapidated nuclear hell-scape populated with mutants and outcasts who don't take kindly to outsiders. In order to keep Hero from running away, Governor makes him wear a leather suit fitted with explosive electrodes (two of which are positioned directly over Hero's balls) that will blow up if he tries to harm Bernice or doesn't find her within five days.



Right away, it seems as if Sono is trying to subvert action movie tropes with Prisoners of the Ghostland, by ironically naming the protagonist Hero when he's anything but, and also playing around with "cool guy" tropes. Instead of driving off in the bad ass car provided for the mission, Hero instead takes a bicycle complete with a cute little basket on the front. Sono doesn't seem concerned with telling a coherent story and the film whizzes forward from one outlandish set-piece to the next never stopping to breathe or examine anything that has occurred. The action is well executed and bombastic, but it's hard to care about anything on an emotional level because there is almost zero character development.

Visually, the film is incredible looking with bright colors and inventive costumes. Samurai Town looks like someone put Django and Seven Samurai into a blender with Bill Moseley sauntering around speaking Japanese with a southern accent. It hearkens back to the golden era of '70s Japanese exploitation film where these kind of subversive projects were given full studio backing and lavish budgets. The casting is wonderfully diverse, a mixing pot of different cultures and influences making for a feast for the eyes and ears. The acting is all over the place though, with Cage and Boutella putting in the best performances.



The Mad Max inspired Ghostland is haunting, full of billowing dust and broken doll imagery, with troubled lost souls wandering around spouting crazed gibberish. There is a lot of symbolism involving time with one character constantly shouting "TICK TOCK TICK TOCK!" and the climatic battle happening in front of a giant clock. There is also an obsession with nuclear bombs--this world exists after the detonation of one and there are a few sequences where mushroom clouds are displayed predominately. 

The subtext has become the text in this case, and perhaps this film is commentary on how Japanese media has been trapped in the shadow of nuclear catastrophes for decades first in WWII and more recently with the Fukushima incident. Is all of their art imprisoned in the "Ghostland"? Sono is no stranger to this kind of direct and meta commentary. Prisoners of the Ghostland is uneven at best but thanks to eye-popping visuals and Cage's unhinged performance it is at the very least watchable.

--Michelle Kisner