‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ Movie Review
How the West Was Weird
Set in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic pastiche of Eastern and Western culture, a famed bank robber known only as “Hero” (Nicolas Cage) is called upon by the sleazy Governor of Samurai Town (Bill Mosely) to rescue his missing adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). He is strapped into a leather jumpsuit with explosive nodes attached to his neck, arms, and testicles, and informed that the devices will be detonated if he fails or refuses to comply. Now the Hero must venture into the desert expanse known as “the Ghostland” to retrieve Bernice within three days in order to win back his own life.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is directed by Sion Sono, a Japanese filmmaker who specializes in off-kilter, often darkly comic action and horror. This is actually his first film (largely) in English, and it definitely feels more like a Japanese film than an American film. It has a very specific tone that benefits the film more than it fails it, but the movie’s shortcomings are pretty hard to ignore. But I’ll get to those in a bit. For the most part, I enjoyed Prisoners of the Ghostland. I’m a bit of a sucker for movies like this. When the trailer first began to circulate online, it boasted a quote from Nicolas Cage calling it “the wildest movie [he’d] ever made”, which is saying quite a bit. I would consider this to be true in many ways, but not every.
The world in which the film takes place is certainly strange and over-the-top, with its seemingly superfluous idiosyncrasies and, as stated above, mashup of both Japanese and American aesthetic. It combines the wild west with feudal Japan, while also including Mad Max-style factions of scavengers and fanatics going about their bizarre business. In fact, the design of Samurai Town is quite similar to that of the town in Yojimbo, which itself inspired multiple spaghetti westerns. Actually, plenty of great westerns were inspired by samurai films, as they bare many similarities in tone, structure, and character types, so blending these two makes more sense than one might expect. This instantly establishes a very strange and specific tone that the main storyline has to continually try to keep up with. And again, it manages to do so MOST of the time. The actual plot beats are far more standard than one might expect from a film taking place in such a bonkers world. You keep hoping something way crazier will happen, but it typically doesn’t. It just takes place in a crazy setting. This was most likely due to budget constraints, as most of the money was clearly put into the outstanding production design. It feels like the kind of movie that should have had bombastic action sequences and elaborate stunt work, but it just didn’t have the means. Oddly enough, I think one of the best comparisons I could make would be to the movie Waterworld. While Prisoners of the Ghostland wasn’t nearly as boring as that one, they both have the same major flaw: the setting is far more interesting and complex than the movie itself. Now Waterworld had a massive budget, so it doesn’t have the same excuse as this film, but it’s still an apt comparison.
Another hallmark of gonzo Japanese action and horror is the unique, over-the-top style of operatic acting. Nicolas Cage and Bill Mosley are absolutely perfect for this type of movie. They already tend to lean into this technique in most of their films, so all they really had to do was fully embrace it. But here we run into a similar issue to the one previously mentioned: not everyone in the cast is able to keep up. Some of the less prominent characters will occasionally try to match their energy with the same stylized overracting, but they just can’t compete. This is an acting style that Cage and Mosley have truly perfected, especially Cage, and it makes some of the other actors’ attempts look amateurish, rather than deliberate. Sofia Boutella is one of the only actors who isn’t called on to do this heightened form of acting, and she plays her role well. All of her backstory (aside from one flashback to her as a child) is inferred based on her situation. While said backstory is a little routine, the less-is-more approach to telling it was a wise choice.
Even though I was a little disappointed, I still couldn’t fully dislike the movie. It’s not always able to live up to the lunacy it promises, and the acting from the some the minor characters is questionable, but the world is so bizarre and fascinating, and the Cage’s and Mosley’s enthusiasm is undeniably compelling. It’s a movie with future cult potential that won’t please everyone, but I liked the positives too much to let the shortcomings ruin my enjoyment.