September 17th, 2021
MOVIE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND
STARRING: NICOLAS CAGE, SOFIA BOUTELLA, BILL MOSELEY
DIRECTED BY: SION SONO
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
Oh what year Nicolas Cage is having. With his award worthy performance in Pig, he reminded everyone that he’s not just going through the motions, no matter what the assignment asks for. He’s always all in and sometimes that calls for a quiet reservation and sometimes it turns the level up to twelve. With Cage teaming up with director Sion Sono, the Japanese director who delivered the wild meta yakuza movie Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, and has a notorious reputation of delivering his brand of violent cinema with a purpose. That’s what makes this matchup so delightful, which does not disappoint, because Prisoners of the Ghostland is Nic Cage in his own Mad Max meets lone gunman western, with the final result being a sun soaked dystopian mix of Cage rage and Sion Sono creativity. Prisoners of the Ghostland has so much of everything that it’s bound to captivate you one way or another.
The story begins in a place called Samurai Town, which is a small stretch of road, with bodega stores surrounding, from massage parlors, banks, to drug dens, and it is all run by a Colonel Sanders looking man called The Governor (Bill Mosley). He has his hands in everything, where the women are his property and his source of pleasure, but when his daughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) escapes, the plan becomes for The Governor to use a prisoner to go into a desolate town called Ghostland to bring her back. This prisoner is just known as Hero (Cage), a man that robbed a bank with his friend Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), which left a lot of dead bodies at the hands of his acquaintance, including a young boy, and now Hero is the one paying for these sins. It doesn’t help that his body is strapped to an explosive suit that will detonate if he runs away from his assignment, but Prisoners of the Ghostland turns into a new age Western, where the lone man rolls into town with a plan, only to become the savior of a town.
I’d like to say that Prisoners of the Ghostland was as simple as the synopsis, but with a director such as Sono, there’s much more to it all. The inspirations are everywhere, making his style a bit of cinematic gumbo, where the costumes pop with color like a Jacques Demy romance, a samurai journey such as Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, and the dystopian world of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s all done through the vessel of Cage, who plays the character with a quiet approach, a man that has no control over his fate, making him the perfect candidate to enter into a place they say ghosts exist. With his role as Hero, Cage plays it just right, not too over the top, but just crazy enough to blend in with Sono’s narrative style.
The screenplay, written by Reza Sixo Safai and Aaron Hendry, at times feels a bit separate from everything else going on in the film. You have the wild textures of sets and exterior settings in this universe built, from the women clapping in sync to praise The Governor, to the wild invention of a suit that can blow Hero’s arms and testicles off, and various performances from actors game to create the characters in their own way, it all does the heavy lifting for a relatively simple plot. It’s a standard A-Z and Z-A Western, where a man starts in one location, goes out into the desert to find a woman-Sofia Boutella is sadly limited here, primarily used as the macguffin- and the climax where our Hero rolls back into town. Sono makes sure to include samurai sword fights, a bit of ghost mythology, and more than enough Nic Cage to make the adventure worth it.
It might not be the best Nicolas Cage movie of 2021- that’s still easily Pig– but Prisoners of the Ghostland was my cup of crazy. It has a big cast of various people of the villages, the crazy preacher in the square, a man that repurposed broken mannequins, and mystical ghosts in the desert. When the Western genre typically repeats itself, it’s fantastic to see a director attempting to mix his style into the fabric of the tropes, nearly pulling it off without lavish set pieces. I would argue that what’s missing is an even bigger shootout or a chase sequence that works within the narrative, but there’s still that unpredictable Nicolas Cage carrying the action on his back. Prisoners of the Ghostland is proof that the tandem of Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I already want more.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS THIS FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 17TH AND AT THE MUSIC BOX THEATRE IN CHICAGO
Written by: Leo Brady