When it comes to the films of Sion Sono, the one thing they all have in common is that they are all, in one way or another, a total gonzo cinematic experience that generally defies the constructs of traditional visual storytelling. And his latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland, very much keeps that tradition alive with his East meets West post-apocalyptic genre mashup that has elements of classic spaghetti westerns, Mad Max, Escape from New York, and Versus coursing through its very amped-up veins. While Prisoners of the Ghostland is uneven at times, and the story loses some of its energy in the latter half, the parts that do work about it work exceedingly well, and I guarantee this is a film that fans will be debating and discussing for years to come.
It’s hard to give a definitive plot summary for Ghostland simply because there is A LOT going on, but the main gist is that in Samurai Town, a bank robber known only as “Hero” (Nicolas Cage) is being imprisoned for his crimes while being forced to wear a sumo mawashi. One day, Hero is released from captivity by a nefarious man known as “The Governor” (Bill Moseley), who tasks him with retrieving his missing niece (played by Sofia Boutella). The Governor gives Hero five days to complete his mission, and to keep him in line, he forces Hero to wear a special suit, one that features several explosive devices that will detonate if he gets too “excited” by women or wants to cause them harm. Hero sets out to find the missing woman, but his journey doesn’t go as expected, and things only get weirder and more outlandish from there.
The thing about Prisoners of the Ghostland that made it a movie that I liked, rather than loved, was the fact that Boutella is grossly underutilized, and Cage feels woefully miscast here. In regard to that latter part, when you have a director, script, and an entire cast of characters working at a proverbial 11 out of 10, you need to have someone in there to counterbalance all that hyperactivity, and Cage just isn’t the guy who downplays things these days. I get that everyone is really into all the “Cage Rage” lately, but I personally would love to see the actor take on some more nuanced roles because it’s almost beginning to feel like schtick from Cage, and we’ve seen so many varied performances from him throughout his career.
Moseley in the role of “The Governor” ended up being my favorite part of Prisoners of the Ghostland, though, and it was nice to see him given an opportunity to showcase his keen abilities when it comes to delivering memorably verbose monologues here. Both Nick Cassavetes and Tak Sakaguchi were welcome sights in Ghostland, too, and on a visual level, there’s something wonderfully singular about the film’s production design that pays homage to a variety of styles, both realistic and fantastical, and cinematographer Sôhei Tanikawa does an excellent job of highlighting all of them through the magic of his lens.
While I was hoping for something more cohesive from Prisoners of the Ghostland, the film marks an audacious new direction for Sono’s career that I’m eager to see more from in the future, and there’s no denying that he truly makes films cut from a wholly different cloth unlike anyone else out there. For those of you looking to see this strictly for all the Cage-iness, you’ll undoubtedly be entertained by Prisoners of the Ghostland, and regardless of my own feelings about his performance here, I know I’ll never be able to shake the image of Cage woefully screaming “TESTICLE” at the top of his lungs, and I guess that’s something.
Movie Score: 3/5
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[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.]