If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it countless times: revisiting a film is always bound to reveal something new. We have to be willing — correction — open to that newness because, whether a film is a longtime favorite or something that didn’t quite connect with you, by being open to it, you may just find something unexpected and delightful. This can be something as innocuous as a joke or reference or as large as a concurrent theme. Such is the case with director Sion Sono’s (Suicide Club) first English-language film Prisoners of the Ghostland, which I first watched during Sundance 2021. Entertaining to be sure for a myriad of reasons, I found myself nonetheless confused on the film’s intent and messaging. Thanks to RLJE Film’s physical release of Prisoners, I was able to revisit the film and had quite a few concerns addressed and questions answered. I stand by my statement that this isn’t Cage’s “Cagiest” performance, but his energy is apt for a film that merges the East and West into a seamless apocalyptic concoction that feels at once strangely futuristic and yet on the verge of becoming real.
On the outskirts of a nuclear wasteland is a small town under the thumb of the man they call Governor (Bill Moseley). When his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) goes missing, Governor recruits a man (Nicholas Cage) in jail for a litany of crimes to bring her back, offering his freedom in exchange for hers. To incentivize the man, Governor has him placed inside a leather suit with six well-placed tiny explosives which, if not disarmed in time, will end the man’s life. With little options and not much time, the man sets off through the ghostland to find Bernice and, in the process, comes face-to-face with the horrors of his past.
If you haven’t yet seen Prisoners of the Ghostland and would like to know more about the film, I encourage you to read the previously released spoiler-free Sundance festival review. Moving forward, details will be shared about the film’s plot and themes.
Whether it’s your first viewing or not, Sono’s Prisoners is a wild movie that more often deals in symbols than concrete ideas. There’re bright colors against a barren land, creating a visible schism regarding whether this is tale of a blossoming or degrading community. There are ghosts real and imagined acting as borders and guides. There’s a notion of time as a thing to fight against, as well as a thing to move on from. One idea stacked upon another until each frame is crammed with meaning. So packed, in fact, that I missed a rather poignant theme within Prisoners: a tale of redemption via Cage’s man known as Hero by the survivors of the ghostland. Granted not all of the ideas swirling around within Prisoners work as well as the others, but, in recognizing the redemption arc, a lot of other pieces began to fit together. For instance, when Hero is getting his instructions from Governor, the townspeople around him sing him a bit of a nursey rhyme-type of song that references time and a clock. Later, after he and Bernice encounter the specters of the ghostland, the people trapped on the other side explain to him the accident that caused the ghostland in the first place and the abandonment of the people by those in power after the fact, integrating the giant clock as part of the story. This creates an interesting echo by which the audience can realize that what’s become a childlike nursey rhyme (think: “Knick Knack Paddy Whack”) to the wealthy and privileged is a story or woe and warning, almost a religion, to the people trapped by the ghostland. Given that the real story behind “Knick Knack Paddy Whack” as it relates to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s is a tale of violence and condemnation of one group by another, the comparison is apt seeing as how Governor was likely a part of the wealthy who kept the incident secret to avoid responsibility. How this ties into redemption is that Hero is a villain conscripted into a recovery mission. He’s not Luke Skywalker, Izuku Midoriya, or even Harry Potter — characters generally perceived as battling the bad guys for the greater good — he’s a self-serving violent asshole who wants his freedom. For Hero, the redemption comes not from saving Bernice (therefore himself) but bringing about peace for the land, something he’s pushed to do after coming face-to-face with his own personal ghosts. This was more muddled on the first watch since so much of Sono’s approach is ethereal and flowing, but on the second, it connected more clearly and contained greater emotional resonance. The silliness, fun as it is, washes away more cleanly to allow the meaning to lay its anchor within the audience.
One thing that’s crystal clear on any watch is that Sono is bringing together a multitude of ideas and concepts in the set design, costuming, and styling. My greatest hope since seeing the film is that the home release will come with bonus features that might dig into his thought process for this project, exposing or discussing some of what we see. Sadly, the physical release only includes an eight minute and 14 second “Making of” featurette that doesn’t offer any insight from Sono himself or anyone on the crew side of things. However, if you’re curious, you can hear what Cage, Boutella, and Moseley have to say about the film as a whole amid dropping a few behind the scenes tidbits. Not enough Tak Sakaguchi involved (he plays the wordless roll of Governor’s right-hand Yasujiro, as well as serving as the action director for Prisoners), but it was fascinating to listen to Cage talk about how much of the stunt work he did versus his double and how he prepared. This particular factoid made some of the stunts in the final battle make more sense in their execution given their fluidity and why Hero was wearing a helmet — it’s not just protective for the character, but easier to hide the double! The featurette isn’t the only included bonus material as there are two photo galleries split between film stills and behind the scenes photos totaling 37 between the two. Once you select a gallery, you use your remote to slide from one image to another. As neat as this is, without information from Sono himself or his team, they are just pictures without context.
For those curious, RLJE Films provided a Blu-ray copy for home review, not a 4K UHD edition, due to supply issues. This is a film that makes lovely use of color in creating atmosphere so I can imagine that the 4K UHD edition will pop with the right equipment. If that’s your ideal edition, it’s available in a steelbook edition that comes with a Blu-ray copy of the film, as well. My review copy looked and sounded great when watched via my home set-up of a 43” 4K UHD television, Xbox X as a player, and 5.1 Dolby surround sound stereo. If you’ve got this or higher, chances are you’re going to enjoy the look and sound of the Blu-ray just as much as I did.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ve understood all the “balls-out” jokes since Prisoners initial released. It’s an apt description, not just for the literal meaning of Hero’s explosive testicular removal, but because this is the kind of film that goes for it. Not all of it works within the theme (for example, I’m still not sure why Yasujiro remains loyal to Governor in the end), but Prisoners is a film you’re not likely to forget. It’s odd, it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t hide its rightful condemnation of capitalism. Come from the samurai western, stay to learn a thing or two about why we value wealth and shun those without.
Prisoners of the Ghostland Blu-ray Special Features
- The Making of Prisoners of the Ghostland (8:14)
- Twenty-four (24) Movie Still Photo Gallery
- Thirteen (13) Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD November 16th, 2021.