A nameless stranger. A damsel in distress. A suicide mission that no one but the best can handle. These three requirements appear in countless stories, from gunslinger westerns of the East to the samurai tales of the West, each possessing the specific sensibilities of their respective tale of origin. These sensibilities clash in director Sion Sono’s (Suicide Club) first predominantly English-language film Prisoners of the Ghostland starring cult hit maker Nicolas Cage (Mandy), Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: Secret Service), Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Nick Cassavetes (Face/Off), and Bill Moseley (Repo! The Genetic Opera). The ensuing story is nothing short of pure adrenaline cinema, grabbing you by the short and curlies while dazzling you with the grand and absurd. While many may suggest Ghostland to be the next great Cage cult film, I must disagree on the grounds that while the film is gonzo, it’s not particularly logical, and while Cage goes big, we’ve seen him bigger. But if you’re looking to just escape into the wild and weird, Ghostland may be just what you’re looking for.
Imprisoned for a bank robbery gone wrong, Cage’s nameless villain is recruited by the Governor (Moseley) to cross through the wasteland rumored to be controlled by a marauding band of ghosts to bring back his granddaughter Bernice (Boutella). If he succeeds in this presumably impossible task, he’ll earn his freedom. If he fails, death will be painful thanks to the black leather suit given to him by the Governor which is lined with explosives. Time ticks away with each step and the ghosts are waiting and are ravenous.
Full disclosure: Watching Prisoners of the Ghostland ended up being a chore as the wifi in our home kept struggling, resulting in multiple restarts of the Sundance Apple TV app and having to find my place in the stream over and over. This continuous problem did absolutely kill the momentum Sono’s film requires. Some films are easy to pick up and put down, especially after having seen through at least once. So while I can discuss the narrative, the present themes, performances, production design, and the usual exploration of content, I must confess that I was not at all drawn in by this world or story. And this, I’m sad to say, I cannot determine if it’s the film itself which never pulled me in or the frequency of interruptions which prevented me from fully diving in.
As you should always take any review with a certain grain of salt, consider the above my word of warning for the perspective to come.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is, honestly, a wild ride. You get this from the opening scene in which the audience sees Cage and his partner, Psycho (Cassavetes), rob the bank that sets these two on their collision course with their destiny. The bank is a stark white, the customers inside dressed in solid primary colors, and a little boy stands before a gumball machine while a mask rests on the back of his head. Masks are a means of keeping something hidden, something secret, and here, the boy’s refusal to wear his over his face, a smiling, joyous one at that, feels like a rebellion. One which juxtaposes wonderfully against the maskless robbers as they terrorize the tellers and customers. The child, like Cage, has no name, and they two plus Psycho don’t wear masks, implying a certain freedom, brazenness, or confidence in who they are. As the scene turns to mayhem, Sono makes it quite clear that this ghost story isn’t one where the audience or the character should fear the masked, but the ones who possess such fortitude to walk the Earth without covering. As the true nature of Ghostland is revealed, or unmasked, if one wanted to be so trite, the audience comes to understand that villainy wears many faces and almost always will stare you straight in the eye while it stabs you in the back.
This is where co-writers Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s script gets meaty. The narrative is staged within a post-apocalyptic Neo-Japan that’s a mish-mash of Eastern and Western cultures. Signs are written in English, but the architectural and cultural influences are plainly Japanese. This gives way to a few ways of thinking. The original idea was to shoot the film in Mexico, but after Sono experienced a heart attack, Cage suggested moving filming to Japan to make his recovery and treatment easier. In this regard, one may imagine that the Japanese influence would be more prevalent given the shooting location. Another way to view the film is that this is Sono’s first prominently English-language film, so integrating Eastern elements with Western ones makes sense, especially considering the Western elements that are heavily represented within. Another, and I can’t help but wonder of the strength of this interpretation, is as a meta-commentary on historical interactions between Eastern (specifically American) culture and Japanese culture. Take the ghost-ridden wasteland, for example. The narrative hangs quite neatly on the fact that the ghostland exists due to bureaucratic failure and a disavowal of responsibility from the Powers That Be, who are fine with this as long as they aren’t infringed upon. The film doesn’t explore this deeply and, where it does, it’s often more esoteric, but the evidence is there for an accusation of cultural entitlement, bureaucratic malfeasance, and the abdication of responsibility from foreign involvement against a land’s indigenous populations. Credit to Hendry and Safai for trying to explore these notions amid wildly absurd situations and hardly explained circumstances.
To put within a modern perspective, Prisoners of the Ghostland would be quite at home in a double feature with John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981). Both take place in a dystopia, both feature an anti-hero, and both involve doing the right thing under duress. Those that enjoy such a narrative are likely to appreciate the violent excesses of which Ghostland avails itself. I, for one, loved seeing Sakaguchi engage in a samurai sword fight to the sounds of Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “Time in a Bottle.” From the outside, the two seem idiosyncratic, yet the execution is seamless, speaking far more for Sakaguchi’s silent honor bound Yasujiro than a lick of dialogue ever could. In contrast, where one would expect Cage to be at his most unconventional, just lapping up the ridiculousness of the premise and the situation of his character, his performance is middle of the road, at best. It lacks the menace of Castor Troy (Face/Off (1997)), the desperation of Red Miller (Mandy (2018)), and the rational-gone-looney of Nathan Gardner (Color Out of Space (2019)). Heck, this role could’ve easily been played like John Milton (Drive Angry (2011)), which allowed Cage to project a simmering rage that made him formidable yet approachable. Here, Cage plays his nameless robber as just plain agitated to be anywhere, ready to be done. Given the circumstances and characterization of him, the frustration is understandable, but the performance feels strangely off for an actor who seems consistently present in any project: big or small. On a positive note, where the initial conflicts with Cage lack a little something, the climactic showdown is worth the wait. It’s violent, bloody, incredibly creative, and delivers that Cage intensity that appears to be missing for the duration. Boutella even gets in on the action, something I’ve been aching to see since The Secret Service proved she could throw down with the best of them but has been held back in more recent projects.
In its totality, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a wild ride. Aspects don’t make a lick of sense in their execution, the geography is untenable (not in a Bermuda Triangle way), and Cage’s character arc feels far more forced than it should due to the spiritual/ethereal approach the script takes to get him from Point A to Point B, but the action is solid, the blood flows a thick red, and it brings new meaning to the phrase “balls out.” If this sounds like your ideal Saturday night, then book yourself a trip to Ghostland. I suspect you’ll have better luck coming back then most.
Currently screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Awaiting release date information from RLJE Films regarding theatrical or home release.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.