Back in 2018, Nicolas Cage called the then-in-production Prisoners of the Ghostland “the wildest movie I’ve ever made,” a tall proclamation considering every single second of Nicolas Cage’s existence since 1982. You almost had to believe it though, considering the film is the first collaboration between Cage and filmmaker Sion Sono—the controversial madman-genius behind flicks like Love Exposure and Suicide Club—and boasts a premise that sees a leather-clad Cage traversing a haunted Mad Max wasteland with bombs strapped to his nards. The finished product, which just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, is, in fact, very wild, but boiling it down to just another entry for Best Cage Freakout Youtube compilations does a disservice to this gorgeous, gonzo genre mashup. Prisoners of the Ghostland eventually buckles under the weight of its own madcap ambitions, and anyone hoping to understand what the hell is happening at any given moment might be disappointed, but if you give yourself over to this thing, it’s a neon-lit ride worth taking.
Again, a simple synopsis on a film like this feels foolhardy, but here’s a shot: Cage stars as Hero, a loner with a violent past being held prisoner in the post-apocalyptic villa of Samurai Town, where Spaghetti Western saloons crash up against 12th century Japan aesthetics for no discernable reason. Hero is offered a chance at freedom by the town governor (B-movie favorite Bill Moseley, delivering to the cheap seats in white suit and blood-red gloves): Venture out beyond the city limits into a ghost-infested wasteland to recover the Governor’s rebellious granddaughter, Bernise (Sofia Boutella, giving her all to a nearly-wordless role), who escaped under cover of darkness. To ensure a timely delivery, the Governor outfits Hero with a customized leather outfit, with explosives conspicuously placed on the neck, arms, and, yes, the testicles.
So you’re almost definitely going to hear about the testicles, because there is a moment in Prisoners of the Ghostland in which Nicolas Cage screams the word “testicle” with more gusto than a human being should be capable of. But arguably the most surprising thing about Ghostland is the fact Cage might be the most subdued part of the movie. Cage’s trademark late-career unhinged ethos is just another piece of the wallpaper for Sono, who packs so much visual inventiveness into Prisoners of the Ghostland—the rare film he didn’t write himself, the script credited to Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai—that it feels more like a madman’s playground than a coherent story. Does the gory swordfight in the streets set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” serve much of a larger purpose? Not entirely, but it’s so beautifully captured and oddly moving, who cares? (If you answered “I most definitely care,” I definitely do not recommend you watch Prisoners of the Ghostland.)
To be clear, this film is all over the map, and, occasionally, just gleefully off the map’s edges altogether. This is a glimpse into the mind of a filmmaker unburdened by sticking to just one inspiration. Prisoners of the Ghostland‘s most basic homages are to Sergio Leone‘s Westerns, which themselves were directly inspired by Akira Kurosawa‘s Samurai epics like Yojimbo and Ikiru. But dig deeper, and you’ll also find bits of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s avante-garde acid-western El Topo in Ghostland‘s grimier moments. The Mad Max influence is obvious in everything Hero experiences in the wasteland—shout-out to the spiky shoulder pads and electronic voice modulation of the Rat Man and his Rat Clan—but there’s also a little of The Warriors and a lot of Terry Gilliam thrown in, especially in the future-dirt design of a massive clock that wasteland prisoners desperately try and hold back in a futile effort to stop time. Sono never wrangles all of these inspirations together—did I mention the radioactive horror moments that feel The Hills Have Eyes-ish?—but there’s also no sense that he wants to.
If that all sounds overwhelming, that’s because Prisoners of the Ghostland is, in fact, overwhelming. I expect this movie to divide audiences down the exact same line as Mandy, a situation where someone might be looking for an insane Nicolas Cage movie but finding instead an insane movie that happens to feature Nicolas Cage. The weirdness of this movie is the point, and while you will feel lost navigating its story, there is some truly staggering imagery to stop and gawk at along the way.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, check out the links below:
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