'Prisoners of the Ghostland': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Prisoners of the Ghostland
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Not the good kind of bonkers.

Nicolas Cage stars in Sion Sono's samurai-Western rescue story set in a post-nuclear wasteland.

Three years ago, Sundance booked Panos Cosmatos' Mandy, a hyperviolent, singularly weird film that ranks among the most worthwhile products of Nicolas Cage's anything-for-a-paycheck period. Cult-movie lightning doesn't strike twice with Prisoners of the Ghostland, a Cage-starring (mostly) English-language effort by prolific Japanese director Sion Sono. A mashup of idioms that sends Cage into a kind of netherworld to rescue (read: re-kidnap) a young woman for a petty tyrant, it alternates between too simplistic and incomprehensible, spending much of its time in between those poles in the "I understand, but I don't care" zone. Destined to be quickly forgotten, it would need to play a hardcore genre festival to find an appreciative audience of any size.

Cage plays a man identified only as Hero, which is odd, given that we meet him as he's raging out while robbing a bank. Okay, he may not be the thief who shoots a half-dozen innocent people, but he's definitely a Villain.

Years later, he's rotting in a jail cell when he's pulled out by a white-suited blowhard called The Governor (Bill Moseley). The Governor rules a bizarre collection of buildings that seem to be in the middle of nowhere — a kind of theme-park mishmash of samurai-themed establishments (including a geisha brothel) whose inhabitants are as likely to dress like actors in a Western as wear kimonos. The cult-like, volatile vibe here might recall Straight to Hell, but the ghost town Alex Cox envisioned was a lot more fun to be bewildered in.

The Governor has been told Hero is a man of unparalleled skills — just the man to find his "granddaughter" Bernice (Sofia Boutella). She has disappeared into some vague, dusty Bermuda Triangle outside the Governor's reach; unlike Hero, we know she left the old man's care voluntarily. (Enthusiastically, even, under cover of night.) In order to guarantee Hero doesn't mishandle his cargo once he finds it, he's locked into a black-leather jumpsuit with explosive charges stitched at the elbows, the neck, and over each of his (as the Governor pronounces it) "testicules." The latter will be triggered if a sensor tuned to his brainwaves thinks his thoughts might be amorous. (Readers may now be thinking of Escape from New York, and if they want to go cue that up right now instead of reading the rest of this, they'll be making the right choice.)

Hero rides off and immediately gets trapped in Ghostland, a Beyond Thunderdome-like wasteland whose doomed inhabitants can never leave. He quickly finds Beatrice, who spends most of the rest of the film behaving like a zombie. But his efforts to leave with her go badly, and at one point, he even loses a (as Hero screams it) "test-i-CAAAAL!"

Describing the nature of Ghostland could eat up several paragraphs here, and it would probably sound a lot more interesting than it is onscreen. Suffice it to say that residents live in the long shadow of nuclear technology, both bombs and power plants that accidentally become destructive, and that the film's production and costume designers had a lot of fun without worrying about why things look the way they do. Several scenes watch as locals maintain a ceaseless tug-of-war with the second hand of a giant clock, trying to prevent its forward motion because "if time starts moving, everything will explode again."

All this madness would seem an ideal setting for, if nothing else, some patented Nic Cage craziness. But even at his most energetic here, the actor phones it in: It's easy to spot the lines a fan of the film would quote in their imitations of him — "hi-fucking-ya!," anyone? — but Cage here is a faint shadow of his weirdest self, and his sincere self never showed up on set.

No, this film belongs to the martial artist Tak Sakaguchi, who doesn't even have to speak to command the screen in the too-short, too-few sequences that feature him. Playing the Governor's driver/bodyguard Yasujiro, he's magnetic even before he starts slice-and-dicing the violent townsfolk around him. A samurai whose past is explained in a single sentence, his story is more compelling than things the film clunkily takes dozens of minutes to explain. Even so: Remind me why he's trying to both protect and kill Hero?

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distributor: RLJE Films
Production company: XYZ Films
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriters: Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai
Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, Reza Sixo Safai, Laura Rister, Ko Mori, Nate Bolotin
Executive producers: Natalie Perrotta, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian, Yuji Sadai, Toyoyuki Yokohama
Director of photography: Sohei Tanikawa
Production designer: Toshihiro Isomi
Costume designer: Chieko Matsumoto
Editor: Taylor Levy
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Casting director: Chelsea Ellis Bloch

102 minutes