Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Late yesterday, a good friend offered me her ticket for the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” later that same evening. The film is directed by Sion Sono, a Japanese director making his English language debut. It stars Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella.

My wife and I were immediately game but also hesitant. Neither of us have seen a Sion Sono film, nor could either of us remember the last Nicolas Cage movie we watched. I still intend to see “Mandy” at some point based solely on the recommendation of a pair of wrestlers I like. By no means are we the target audience of this film.

Then again, who is?

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” follows Nicolas Cage as Hero, a captured bank robber. He is forced by the Governor, a man who speaks with a Southern (U.S.) accent (“Aren’t you a cuss?”), to find his missing “adopted granddaughter”. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella) and she went missing “up the highway” in a place that may or may not be haunted by ghosts.

To guarantee Hero’s cooperation, the Governor outfits him in a black leather suit with selectively placed explosives. Two of these are placed where his testicles are and will trigger if he tries to sully the Governor’s dear Bernice. There are other gimmicks attached, but they are never the focus of the film.

I am going to be up front with you: this movie was weird. I am not sure that at any point any of it made sense. It seems destined for some kind of cult classic status, but for me (and my wife) there was a lot that did not work.

Despite being Sion Sono’s English language debut, much of the film is also in Japanese. In his introduction of the film, Sono talked about moving the production to Japan so I imagine that had a lot to do with it. Given its bilingual nature, the film constantly feels stuck between worlds which, whilst likely the intention and admittedly a cool way to deliver a specific vibe, does contribute to its overall weirdness.

As such, there are a lot of Japanese extras yelling in English. It contributes a sense of madness to the film. It also leads to almost every character but Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella being especially over-the-top. Despite her talents and screen time, Boutella gets almost no lines. Cage gets more screen time but is subdued and often left with little to do by the film’s script.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, let’s talk about the best aspects of “Prisoners of the Ghostland”: its visuals.

From the first second, this is a stunning film to see. There is a strong East-meets-West vibe throughout. Characters are mostly costumed in traditional Japanese garb and the sets feature traditional Japanese architecture, but the fronts of these buildings are setup to resemble the buildings you would see in an American Western. Plus, you get an eclectic mix of samurai and cowboys, a sentence I did not expect to write.

Beyond Samurai Town as described above, the Ghostland sits in stark contrast. It features more muted colors fitting its wasteland vibe. There is junk everywhere (mostly old trucks outlined in flashing lights). Without intending to, the costumes for those in Ghostland give me a similar feel to 1985’s “Return to Oz”. I am unsure why exactly, but there is a sort of junk-meets-acid trip aesthetic that runs through both films.

Visually, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” never bores. The costuming and sets are rich with color when necessary or visual density when color is not needed. The film is also overrun with symbolism. As my wife described it, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of movie, but we both thought to its own detriment.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a hard movie to rate. I feel like I need to see it two or three more times to feel comfortable with any theories I might have about the nature or purpose of its characters and the strange limbo they appear to be stuck in.

At the same time, I question if there is more to it or if this is just a confectionary treat – all sugar-as-style and nothing but empty calories. It lacks enough exposition for someone like me to understand it. The action scenes are too few. There are some fun lines and scenes, but I was mostly glued to its prettiness and trying to unravel whatever the hell was happening.

I doubt I will watch it again, but I may check out more of Sion Sono’s work. He has an interesting eye and I would love to see what he can do in his own language.

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