Sundance 2021: Prisoners of the Ghostland

Whenever Sion Sono makes a new film, you tend to hear the same things about them: Finally, he has made a completely unrestrained work; He’s working outside the system; This is a singular auteur-like figure who makes one-of-a-kind films, and nobody else could have made this film — and it’s almost always true. Certainly, Sono is among the most interesting working directors, his works seem to spring right from the creative nerve. Chemical reactions to an industry full of constraints. The end result of a long and celebrated history of Japanese filmmakers defying all expectations, as though the country operates within its own creative sphere.

Much of the same attributes could be freely applied to the acting resume of Nicolas Cage. While much spottier in quality, he exudes a difference from all of his contemporaries, a range of absurdist tendencies that fly in the face of convention. A Nicolas Cage film is singular in its own way; we only have one of him. Invariably, the collaboration of Sono and Cage would have to be the epitome of strange modernist filmmaking. Prisoners of the Ghostland is as superbly strange and manically creative as we could hope for from such a pairing.

Sono’s first English-language film, the impetus of the project is a collage of East-meets-West midnight movie madness. When they were setting out to shoot, Sono suffered a heart attack, and at Cage’s suggestion, they went and shot in Japan. The film arrives with gratitude and without missing a step. While recovering, Sono made a propulsive heart-racing genre mash-up that defies clear categorization.

The difference here is that the work has Western writers. Working off a script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, all of the distinct Sonoisms come through visual cues. A fever dream of Psychomagic worthy of Alejandro Jorodowsky, the film veers between Samurai-Western and exploitative Mad Max post-apocalypse without ever flinching. Brazen in form and technique, the only problem is that we deeply feel the difference in the writing. The film constantly suggests action and moments that could reach a fascinating climax, constantly edging toward some cathartic moment of complete abandon, but never capitalizing on the grandeur of these setups.

A simple premise drives the affair: Cage plays a long-imprisoned criminal, notorious for a series of bank robberies. The Governor (an amusing Bill Moseley) has decided only this reckless vagabond is worthy of the mission ahead: to rescue his daughter Bernice (a rescue-worthy Sofia Boutella), by lifting a curse that hangs over the prisons of the outer Ghostland.

Given his violent history, Cage’s black leather suit has been armed with detonators. If he’s even tempted to commit any act of violence against women, they will first signal a warning, and then blow him up on the spot. The gritty mixture of fetishistic apocalypse leathers and traditional Japanese dress and patterns is an effusive stylistic choice. The contrasts truly bring out a style all it’s own. There’s a great touch where the prisoner women are covered with fragmented mannequin pieces.

While the film is an excuse for Cage to commit to the fullest version of our expectations, it remains a Sono picture. It is still about something. As with many future-driven Japanese genre pictures, it explores the anxieties of the Atomic Bomb and post-nuclear fallouts. It does not arrive at any cohesive or inherently meaningful conclusion to these ideas, but there is enough here to do a more formal reading of these themes and how they relate to the works Sono himself wrote, which are categorically essential to the development of Japanese cinema.

Being that this is a certain kind of Cage production, there is plenty of fan-service around that idea. Excuse our language, but there’s plenty of time for Cage to bust a nut and scream “TESTICLE,” while somehow still fitting the purposes of the story. Yes, he exhibits the fullest self-aware understanding of what we’ve come to expect of him. It’s like his career has lead up to this moment where he can break the fourth wall and just become the Cage everyone wants him to be. But the most effective version of his acting may not be the balls-out madness that this film embodies. Possibly, he still needs a director to reign him in, so that it does not become so immediately exhausting. Given all that freedom, Cage has one speed, and a perfectly executed film probably requires a couple different modes.

The greatest detriment to the film is that we all had to watch it alone. I’ve rarely been so certain about a film’s Midnight Movie prospects. Prisoners of the Ghostland is going to be a blast with an audience. There are so many moments where we could share our laughter, where it’s just primed for a cult arrival and future repertory showings at an art house theater. There’s no shortage of interest here, especially for hungry genre buffs craving a certain scuzzy aesthetic. While the film is so many things and most of all is a wild ride with two guys doing exactly what we ask of them, it just doesn’t arrive at any satisfying destination. One thing remains utterly clear: Sono is perhaps the most interesting director working today. Even a minor bump in his filmography such as this is a reckless genre-bender of a film that had to be made to fulfill his own curiosity. We’re glad he’s still with us and keeping it weird.

6/10

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