Prisoners of the Ghostland

Sundance 2021 Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ Arthouse Meets Grindhouse in Nic Cage’s Wild Ride

Have you ever wished that there would be a neon fuelled, Mad Max inspired retooling of John Carpenter’s Escape from duology? Then Sion Sono’s American debut Prisoners of the Ghostland may be the best thing you see this year.

Synopsis for Prisoners of the Ghostland

In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption.

Before I say anything else about the film, I have to point out that it is a visual smorgasbord. The production design is fantastic, featuring poppy, vivid colors, and combining sentiments of neon Americana and historic Japanese costuming and architecture. This creates a wonderfully weird cowboy meets samurai look in our initial location, the city known as Samurai Town. The titular Ghostlands are dark and dusty, featuring a lot of recycled materials of all sorts, from Christmas lights to mannequins to classic post-apocalypse leather and tire armor looks, creating an odd yet functional atmosphere akin to Terry Gilliam’s Fist of the North Star. Even Nic Cage’s bomb suit that he’s strapped in as “motivation” is extremely reminiscent of the suits from the manga Gantz.

The film is also interesting due to its unique accessibility. On one level, the film can be enjoyed purely at a surface, grindhouse level and be perfectly fun and serviceable. However, there is a ton of underlying political subtext to digest at the same time. Sion Sono definitely wants to talk about the relations between America and Japan, particularly post WWII and he does not appear happy about it. Bill Moseley’s The Governor is abusive, loud, demanding, and does not care about the negative impact he has on the world around him. Meanwhile, the people around him must fit into a mold he decides, regardless of whether it is healthy for them. If Sono’s perspective couldn’t be made any more clear, Moseley is dressed in a white suit and cowboy hat, while affecting a full Foghorn Leghorn style Southern accent. Even his “grandchildren” are living symbols of his “generosity”, acting more as political props than actual people he has genuine concern for.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The film’s performances also contribute to the unique, arthouse meets grindhouse vibe presented. Sofia Boutella is frankly subdued, not given much to do as an actor, but her performance is serviceable given what she has. Moseley, as I mentioned earlier, is a devious caricature of the worst American stereotypes, and his performance is often cartoonish, which, luckily fits in with most of the presented mood of the film. Finally, Cage spends most of the film in a wave of quiet anger, but worry not, we get full-blown Cage by the end, including a frankly wildly glorious speech where Cage explodes, yelling about recent stress and his testicles.

Final Thoughts

If any of this strangeness sounds up your alley, or you’re a Cage purist, definitely keep an eye out for this film in the future. It has been confirmed to have been picked up by RLJE for distribution, and I sense that once it gets its official release outside of festivals, Prisoners of the Ghostland has a lot of cult classic/midnight movie potential, in the best of ways.

About Chris Filipowicz

Born in small town Montana, Chris is a writer, artist, raccoon rehabilitator, and general supporter of disability rights and awareness. He loves film, especially horror, sci-fi, and animation; and has read comics since he was a child.

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