Prisoners Of The Ghostland, which just world premiered at Sundance, is Sion Sono’s english language debut that was originally meant to be his first film shot in the US proper. The director who has quite the following here in the States, thanks to his relentless presence on the festival circuit and over 50 films in his filmography, fell ill during pre production with a heart attack. Nic Cage was actually the actor who suggested filming Ghostland in Japan, which gives this film a surreal East meets West vibe, as you have not only this bizarre hyper stylized version of Japan that Sono’s films transpire in, but Nic Cage, starring alongside Sofia Boutella and Bill Moseley, with Japan’s own Tak Sakaguchi.
The film is essentially the hero’s journey through an amalgam of Battle Royale, Mad Max and Escape from New York. Nic Cage is an ex-con who is sprung from jail by the Governor, played by a white suited, cowboy hat clad Bill Moseley, who is looking to have his daughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) returned to him. It’s here the film leaves the anime old west themed Samurai Town and forces Cage who is simply known as the “Hero” to venture into the post apocalyptic wasteland here, called Ghostland where Bernice is trapped. Of course this being Sion Sono, before the Governor lets Cage loose he’s informed of his insurance policy on the convict – a leather jumpsuit eerily similar to those in Gantz. On the jumpsuit is a series of explosive pods, for example if he hits a woman, his arm will explode, if he gets aroused his balls will explode, and if he doesn’t come back with Bernice — he explodes.
While Cage has been teasing fans of his freakout films with the knowledge this may be one of the craziest for sometime now, for Sono it feels a bit more restrained. Don’t get me wrong, the hyper stylized, neon soaked world that Sono creates here is only made more surreal by it being populated by these larger than life genre icons. The whole madness of this setup is only amplified even further by not only the locale, but the addition of some really dark Hiroshima subtext buried just beneath the surface of the film, that definitely begs it to be watched a second time. I mean after you’ve gotten over the fact there’s a scene where Nic Cage is forced to take on not only an army of samurai with his bare hands, but ex-Japanese street fighter himself Tak Sakaguchi as well.
While Prisoners Of The Ghostland is pretty damn weird in the best possibly way, it feels like Sono kept a tight rein on Cage’s performance to give the other actors room to breathe. We do of course get some of his traditional Cage-isms “I have a fondness for black leather”, and trademark freak out expressions from time to time. But he never quite manages to eclipse the story and because of that, Sono is able to thankfully keep his narrative engine on track. It’s no easy feat given Bill Moseley, who can also bring the same chaotic energy is also chewing hard on the scenery as he goes toe-to-toe with Cage in scene after scene, which is in stark contrast to the strong silent types embodied by Sakaguchi and Boutella. How Sono utilized these different personalities and their strengths was fascinating to watch as he primed the audience for the third act where they’re finally let loose to reign chaos on his world. Through all this madness the film at times feels truncated for either time or budgetary reasons that leads you to feel there maybe a bigger (or even stranger?) film somewhere on the cutting room floor. That being said, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a surreal neon soaked take on the hero’s journey infused with a healthy dose of Nic Cage madness that will no doubt become yet another sacred text in the book of Cage.