Prisoners of the Ghostland- Sono Unchained

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sion Sono is one of my favorite filmmakers. Outside of Mario Bava and Agnes Varda, I cannot think of a single other director who sparks my imagination and intoxicates me with their works quite like Sion Sono. I’ve viewed more than half of his movies, all the films available in America and elsewhere on the internet, so needless to say I was excited when he announced Prisoners of the Ghostland, his first film in English. Though this excitement was significantly reduced by the addition of one of Hollywood’s most notorious talents: the inimitable Nicolas Cage. While for many this was probably the ultimate gonzo pairing, Japan’s most controversial filmmaking pervert and California’s resident broke wild man teaming up to tackle a post-apocalyptic wasteland equally rife with cowboys and samurai, I was concerned as Cage is famous in this late-stage in his career for overwhelming any picture he’s a part of. Luckily for us, this is more Sono than Cage, and while it’s disappointing to see some aspects of Sono softened for Western audiences, particularly his confrontational nature towards love, gender norms, sexuality, society and the interplay therein, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a bonkers, zany and entirely unique adventure.

Prisoners of the Ghostland' Review: Going Nuclear - The New York Times

The movie’s plot is fairly simple, and really more a set dressing for Sono to explore this vividly rendered, lushly detailed post-apocalyptic adventure. A comically drawn villain known as “The Governor” (Bill Moseley) has a tyrannical grip over a town that simultaneously evokes feudal Japan and the wild west, one of his “daughters” (Sofia Boutella) escapes his abusive grip in favor of braving an uncertain and volatile landscape full of samurai ghost warriors and a village who’s one goal is to “stop time”. He recruits the help of a prisoner who was in a bank robbery gone awry, enter Hero (Nicolas Cage), a gruff, no-nonsense warrior type who favors bicycles instead of hot muscle cars, who’s expression and vacuous stare not only leaves much to the imagination, but much to be desired as well. The character is written scarcely, Sono didn’t give Cage much to work with in this respect, but Cage plummets the character through derangement into camp very quickly, which as at odds with the carefully choreographed bizarre scenario Sono exhibits both aesthetically and narratively.

Prisoners of the Ghostland' review: Nic Cage's 'wildest movie'

There are moments played for laughs but Sono is ultimately so assured in this vision that the film is most interesting when it’s earnest and dedicated. The scene where Cage is picked up by the aforementioned “time-stopping” village is one of the most potently rendered in Sono’s catalog, a natural extension of the dialogue he’s begun in his “apocalyptic” series with The Land of Hope, Himizu, The Whispering Star and Tokyo Vampire Hotel. Each film deals with the fallout of natural disaster or nuclear radiation explicitly, though The Land of Hope and Himizu detail the pre-apocalyptic trauma inscribed on humanity and the latter deal with the aftermath. Prisoners of the Ghostland like The Whispering Star and Tokyo Vampire Hotel are not concerned with extinction so much as they are depictions of the continuation of human life in a post-nuclear world. 

Prisoners of the Ghostland Review: Nicolas Cage Leads a Ballsy Western |  IndieWire

The bomb for the characters in Prisoners of the Ghostland is a mythical cataclysm, a god to be feared who can rain down fiery death and punishment upon the people of the land seemingly at random, for all the nonsensical threads in this film, this is the easily the most poignant and tangible. Sono’s nuclear apocalypse is a tactile world where each set design, costume choice is rife with texture and purpose, it would only be enhanced if his Western actors imbued their characters with a similar sense of meaning. Cage knows he’s an industry joke, and frankly it’s not as much fun when he’s laughing with us. He nearly and it would appear deliberately sabotages this film, Sono does all the thematic and visual heavy lifting, even Cage’s finest scene in this film would have worked with any actor, it’s a moment that will shock and provoke laughter either on the page or on screen. Sono could spend more time on casting in his next Western effort.

Sundance 2021 Film Review: Prisoners of the Ghostland — Strange Harbors

Sono makes movies about freedom, this is one of those. Creatively perhaps his most unhinged since Antiporno and certainly the most resources he’s had at his disposal since his 2019 Netflix collaboration The Forest of Love, this is a filmmaker liberated from the constraints of having to say something and just one who’s making batshit art for the sake of itself. This is dangerous creative territory and while Sono has shown he’s willing to jeopardize his career trajectory he has never once been at a lack for interesting things to say. Prisoners of the Ghostland is prisoner to its own awareness of the Western gaze but is nonetheless another uncanny entry in the filmography of Sion Sono.