‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ Review: A Ballsy Misfire for Nic Cage

So far as I can tell, there are at least three ways to approach Prisoners of the Ghostland, the English-language debut of anarchic Japanese director Sion Sono. The easiest is to just trust the thing and take it completely at face value, viewing its mishmash of time periods and cultures with surprise and amusement. 

Ghostland is a film where trappings of the Old West exist alongside those of feudal Japan as well as neon signage and modern cars, but most of all it’s a film where Nicolas Cage stars as Hero, a convict wearing a leather suit that positions small, sewn-on bombs near his throat, his arms, and his testicles. The explosives are something of an insurance policy and additional motivator on behalf of his benefactor, a white-suited southern gentleman called the Governor (Bill Moseley, giving a pretty persuasive audition for Colonel Sanders). He will free Hero on the condition that he drives off into a desolate supernatural realm called the Ghostland and rescues his “niece,” Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who is held prisoner there. (You know, like the title.)

But if you are, like me, an inexplicable combination of a Nicolas Cage fan and a particularly joyless individual, we might view this entire setup with skepticism, as what might be a calculated bid for cult movie cred. Here, it seems, is Nic Cage doing the Nic Cage stuff, shouting at odd moments while generally finding some disarming way through even the most turgid dialogue. For as much as Cage seems determined to challenge himself even in such egregious memebait as Willy’s Wonderland, his casting tends to be an easy shorthand for a specific intent and tone that’s easily misused.

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Ridin’ Sono

We might also consider how the film’s weirdness only deepens in the Ghostland, which is a kind of Mad Max-esque limbo where the Ghostlanders all pull on ropes to keep the hands on a clock from moving and stave off the nuclear explosions. Its entrance is marked by open books with pages flapping in the wind as well as a Shakespeare sonnet written on a highway sign, and there is a squeaky-voiced trashmonger guy called the Ratman who is in charge of the Rat clan and also there are some people who stand still while covered in mannequin parts.

The film piles this stuff on without really leaving space to explore the ideas it initially puts forth. Take, for example, the bomb suit and how it can individually and automatically trigger the explosives based on Hero’s anger or sexual attraction toward Bernice. Essentially, he is technologically restrained from the impulses we see in many a western protagonist, which tend to be men who deal with “emotional” women through liberal application of an open palm and who tend to be rewarded with sex (implied or otherwise); by the final showdown, the suit seems all but forgotten. Similarly, what one person calls the “nuclear hell” of the Ghostland remains underexplored, only tenuously (and sometimes incoherently) connected to various other characters. It’s a scattershot film, more invested in even the weirder tangents that it scarcely follows through, like the mannequins or Hero’s former partner (Nick Cassavetes), who is named Psycho and did a bank massacre because he went off his meds.

Compare these directionless oddities with another silly Japanese sorta-western, Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. That film is also an out-of-time mashup, with a kanji signpost subtitled “Nevada” and Japanese actors all speaking English while dressed in either cowboy or samurai outfits. Through these outwardly bizarre flourishes, it literalizes the game of telephone between samurai movies like Yojimbo and Spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and Django. Ultimately, Sukiyaki Western Django spreads its premise very thin even in the trunctuated international version, but the bloat is in service of taking its “joke” premise beyond just a joke, trying to get us to really believe in the ridiculous setting and drama. That level of earnest care feels absent from Prisoners of the Ghostland, which is atypical of Sono and his rambling, character-packed sociological treatises on Japanese society. He’s not credited for the script here, which perhaps contributes to the film’s often impersonal, foot-in-the-door feel (here, I think back to Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s only American film thus far, the 2013 Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand).

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Prisoners of the Ghostland

Playing in Hell

At absolute worst, Prisoners of the Ghostland raises the suspicion of Sono pandering to the taste for “weird Japan” and the skin-deep appreciation of foreign cinema only according to its what-the-fuck factor. This, I’m afraid, is where things get messy and I wonder if the film is, in fact, made to invite our skepticism and if its too-much-ness is actually quite purposeful in over-pandering to the predictable half-dismissal of Wacky Foreign Shit. Under this reading, Cage becomes something of a kindred spirit to Sono; their genuine efforts risk being lost in the howling demand for pure spectacle. It certainly does not feel accidental that so many of the film’s scenes are choked with onlookers who amplify the emotions by egging on the violence and chaos. Everyone in the film plays to a crowd.

Consider Sono’s dark comedy Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, where some amateurs get to make a movie with the full participation of warring yakuza clans. In a global filmmaking culture that prizes the perception of authenticity (hell, I’m doing it in this very review by wondering how much of the film is an affectation), they’re living their dream; real yakuza doing real violence is about as authentic as it gets. The filmmakers are creating their masterpiece, which is actually a shortsighted live-fast-die-young burst of pure enthusiasm that amounts to a protracted snuff film. At best, it is tough to imagine the film cutting together; their artistic sensibilities have scarcely evolved since they were 17, their great aspiration a plotless orgy of carnage whose creation only gets going halfway through the film-outside-the-film because Sono, at least, does not skimp on the buildup. Does Prisoners of the Ghostland amount to something similar, a spectacle consciously emptied of meaning?

This is, I confess, one of those times where I’m glad this site doesn’t require me to assign a numerical value to my thoughts. As always, the answer probably lies somewhere between the different ways of looking at Prisoners of the Ghostland. Attempts to manufacture weirdness always fail because sincerity is the weirdest thing of all, but I do sense something beneath the overriding testicular peril. The problem is that, even if Sono is simply leaning into his eccentricities, he accomplishes so much more when skewing material that’s more grounded and less consciously wacky (see: Catholic guilt as conceived in Love Exposure, a four-hour film  about an upskirt photographer). Wherever Sono means to go with this film, the result lands disappointingly flat, square in that Mandy/Color Out of Space mold of high-concept Cage efforts that are more fun when attached to trailers and news articles instead of an expectation to sit still for 90-plus minutes.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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