[Sundance Review] 'Prisoners of the Ghostland' is a Divisive Yet Wild Film with All of the Nic Cage Madness You Can Handle
To say that the work of Nicolas Cage is an acquired taste would be an understatement…
…The Community episode “Introduction to Teaching” best outlined the divisiveness of Cage rage fandom, with Abed (Danny Pudi) taking a class called “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad”, in which the class has philosophical debates on whether Cage is a great actor or…not. Suicide Club Director Sion Sono’s first English-language film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, which just world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, does not answer this debate, but instead confounds it with one of the most bizarre Cage performances yet.
Set in a spiritual fantasy world which often feels completely unbound by logic, Prisoners of the Ghostland follows Hero (Cage), a dangerous criminal who is released from prison and hired by a man known only as The Governor (Bill Moseley, doing his best Kentucky Fried asshole impression), to find Bernice (Sofia Boutella), one of his Geisha women who has escaped town. Hero has only a matter of days though, otherwise a suit with explosives wired to his neck, arms and, gulp, testicles, will explode.
If that sounds fun, just wait until you hear Cage scream the word “testiclesssss!” in a way that only Cage can, transporting the audience to another plane of existence, where it joins the “Not the bees” Cage GIF on a constant loop of never-ending madness.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is a whole lot of style over substance, opening on a bank robbery gone wrong involving Cage that impresses with gorgeous cinematography and paints the world with a gumball candy flavor (literally). The work of cinematographer Sohei Tanikawa is stunning, creating a larger than life atmosphere that follows Cage wherever he goes. Neon blues, pinks, greens and reds wash over the screen throughout, accentuating the magical vibe of the movie.
The Japanese town where the Governor resides is gorgeous, but it’s the setting of the Ghostland which is truly awe-inspiring. A place lost in time, a giant clock-tower stands at the center of this dystopian land hidden away by the harsh sands of the desert, a complete 180 from the stylish Governor’s town. The people of both lands are prisoners in their own way, trapped either by the ruthless power of the governor, or the lost emptiness of the Ghostland, where children lose all will to live. Sono never attempts to beat the audience over the head with apparent themes of nuclear destruction and the Americanization of other cultures, but they’re there.
Everyone in the cast has a mesmeric energy, but if you came for Cage, you’re going to get all of the Cage lunacy you can possibly handle. In typical Cage rage fashion, Cage delivers a completely unhinged performance that transcends bad and plummets straight into the bizarre. Cage threatens to karate chop others; He twitches uncontrollably while telling Bernice to “take it off” as he strips her of a strange, plastic doll covering that has kept her prisoner in the Ghostland; And he relishes in every word of dialogue like a warm drink cascading from his lips to ours. Surrounded by a crowd of townspeople early on, they go nuts over Cage, calling him cool, with one woman frantically drawing him to retain the memory of just how goddamn cool he is. I mean come on, he is cool, and Prisoners of the Ghostland is that highly divisive performance that separates the admirers of just how cool Cage can be from the ones who don’t quite get it.
Speaking of not getting it, Prisoners of the Ghostland is not for everyone. Not even close.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is a particular brand of batshit crazy. One of the very first scenes sees Cage surrounded by the townspeople as they sing to him with doll-eyed cheer, while the Governor’s prsioner, Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi), slices and dices through others. The whole thing has a vague Wizard of Oz vibe to it, like when Dorothy meets the munchkins, especially once Cage arrives at Ghostland, where a group known as the Rat Pack is dressed in what might as well be a steampunk interpretation of the witch’s flying monkeys. The film also features toxic specters, samurai and strange, plastic covered doll people.
There’s no place like Ghostland.
There’s also no rhyme or reason to any of it, and for the most part, that works just fine. But I want to be frank here, the plot is a complete and utter mess, and when the weirdness and style of it all isn’t firing on all cylinders, that becomes all too apparent. There’s only so much a wide-eyed, coked up looking Cage can do for a film before the underdeveloped flaws of the premise begin to creep in, and I’ll be the first to say that the story here did nothing for me. For as strange as the film is, it actually feels as if Sono is restraining himself, which ends up leaving a lot of these moments falling flat. It isn’t until the third act that the film finally ratchets up the excitement and delivers the sort of bloody, entertaining fight scenes that could’ve helped boost an otherwise floundering and repetitive storyline through the first two-thirds.
No doubt, Cage fans will be arguing over this one for years, it is just that specific of a flavor that you’re either going to love or spit out in confused disgust.
If a nonsensical, spaghetti-western, post-apocalyptic fantasy horror film with Cage going as far off the deep end as he possibly can is your jam, and I know it is if you’re reading this, then Prisoners of the Ghostland is well worth the watch. Ultra-stylized and outlandish, it isn’t always living up to its potential, but when it does, it satisfies in the way that only Cage screaming about testicles can.
By Matt Konopka
(February is WOMEN IN HORROR MONTH, and so we would like to encourage you to donate to Women in Horror Month if you can, and support women and non-binary filmmakers in the genre. Details on the organization and where to donate can be found here).
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