Sundance 2021: Prisoners of the Ghostland
For the first time in esteemed Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s career, he has made his English-language debut with Prisoners of the Ghostland. He brings his unique brand of crazy and puts Nicolas Cage front and center in a gonzo east-meets-west post-apocalyptic samurai western just to make sure he has your attention. It may not be Sion Sono’s most daring or insane film, but the conversations it has surrounding nuclear power, western influence and constantly living in fear is trademark Sono in its execution. While this will be many people’s first experience with the director’s work due to the involvement of Nicolas Cage, it’s also a textbook example of how even when restraining himself, Sono brings the goods every time.
In its opening scene of Prisoners of the Ghostland, Cage robs a bank with his partner in crime, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), and immediately gets captured and imprisoned. Years pass by until a mysterious man named The Governor (Bill Moseley) comes to Samurai Town, releases Cage (who is referred to as the Hero throughout the film), and gives him a nice black leather suit. The catch? The suit is armed with explosives on both of his arms, neck, and testicles that will explode if he does not bring back The Governor’s adopted granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), from the Ghostland within five days. Given the keys to a car, our hero drives out into the post-apocalyptic wasteland and attempts to save her from the clutches of the perverse demons outside of civilization. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what is in store for Hero.
There’s also a settlement within the Ghostland that houses the lost souls who are trapped in the desert landscape. In a bit of exposition that happens through a dream sequence in the settlement that explains most of the film’s wasteland, it’s made clear that the Ghostland is actually the byproduct of an accident involving toxic waste. The fallout was inadvertently caused by those building atomic weapons, and the moment it happened, the Ghostland tried to pause time and keep any danger from happening again. To do this, they literally hold back the hands of a giant clock, exclaiming “If time keeps moving, everything will explode again.”
However, progress continues moving forward outside of the Ghostland. In the lead up to the bank robbery, Psycho and Hero walk through the streets of Samurai Town, surrounded by buildings that look like they haven’t been modernized at all. When they enter the bank, it’s a completely different story. Clearly impacted by the advance of capitalism and The Governor’s western influence, the bank is shiny and clean with a bright red gumball machine and employees all wearing bright colors that match the gumballs themselves. Now though? Samurai Town is lively, filled with strip clubs, karaoke, and a night life that guarantees you’ll never want to leave. Time and its inevitable progress forward becomes the most overt theme explored in Prisoners of the Ghostland.
The set design for Samurai Town and the Ghostland is extremely impressive for the film’s very obvious budget limitations. While Samurai Town is this beautiful mix of Japanese architecture imbued with neon lighting, the Ghostland is not unlike any settlement you’d find in a Fallout video game or Mad Max. The costume design in particular echoes the disparity between the two locations, and right in the middle is Ratman and his crew, who come the closest to capturing the spirit of a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome aesthetic. Armed with electronic equipment and a voice modulator, Ratman is what happens when progress needs to take place but due to circumstances cannot be achieved. He is arguably the best character in Prisoners of the Ghostland and always a ton of fun when on-screen.
Where Sion Sono does wonders and elevates the screenplay from Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai is by going one-step further with it: casting every character with Japanese actors, with the exception of a handful. In fact, every character in a leadership position is played by a white actor from The Governor to Enoch (Charles Glover), the leader of the people of the Ghostland, to our Hero. Whether it was an accidental result of filming in Japan on a smaller budget instead of the initially planned Mexico (Sono suffered a heart attack prior to filming, leading Cage to suggest the filming proceed in Japan), the subtext is undeniably a part of the film’s West-versus-East DNA. Even esteemed Tak Sakaguchi just serves as a bodyguard to The Governor, working for him in the hopes of freeing his sister. Everyone either worships, looks up to, or works under Western actors.
Most of the audience won’t be coming to Prisoners of the Ghostland for all of the subtext and social and political commentary though. No, instead the main draw here is the trademark insanity that Sion Sono always delivers. Here it is much more muted, and it feels like most of it is put on Nicolas Cage and Bill Moseley’s backs. Outside of the climax, Cage is the only one getting great physical moments and Moseley is chewing the scenery in what is definitively the best performance in the film as some old-timey corrupt governor ripped from a Western film. Every scene with him is a ton of fun, only rivaled by the brief moments when Cage gets to go off and generate new memes via a rant or screaming humorous words.
Ultimately, the downfall is that there are two things which people will be coming to Prisoners of the Ghostland for and both of them are somewhat disappointing. The first disappointment is Nicolas Cage, and as much as he has moments of freaking out that people have no choice but to single out, he’s actually stronger here as the silent hero but not in a way where this had to be a Nicolas Cage role. Instead, to justify it, he’s paraded out in random moments to hoot and holler like everyone expects. He’s not a meme at this point – it feels like he’s just a plaything.
Secondly, this is Sono restrained to a point where unless you can enjoy his much less delirious works, your mileage may vary. Held back by his budget, which seemingly just went into the sets, Sono isn’t doing anything on a production level that hasn’t been done much, much better before. The only significant action scene is the climax in which Sofia Boutella gets a brief moment to show why she deserves to be in more action films, and Tak Sakaguchi gets to cut more people down as the badass samurai that he always plays (honestly, it just felt like he was continuing his character from Crazy Samurai Musashi). This is a movie that works more on its layers than it does on the superficial side.
That being said, the climax is entertaining and all the weird eccentricities that are in the film go a long way to making Prisoners of the Ghostland still feel like a fever dream. It’s set-up is promising but around the middle of the film it settles into a groove that’s much more centered around exploring its ideas than moving the plot forward. This film was screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and even Sion Sono went on record in the Q&A that he held back for his first English-language film and tried not to get too weird so as to not shock Western audiences. However, even knowing that, he still provides an entertaining enough film that is worth dissecting for its many themes lying under the surface. Ideally, this ends up being the first of many English-language projects Sono lines up, or at least gives him the exposure he so rightfully deserves.
The first-ever “virtual” Sundance Film Festival runs from January 28 – February 3. Check back for our daily coverage and visit the festival’s official website for more information.
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