How does one even begin to describe Prisoners of the Ghostland, the English-language debut of Japanese director Sion Sono? Star Nicolas Cage stated that it is “the wildest movie I’ve ever made”, which sounds like hyperbole coming from the guy who has made Vampire’s Kiss, Face/Off, and Wild at Heart, among others, but he might actually be right. This is a madcap, utterly bombastic carnival of carnage with Sono letting, or actively encouraging, Cage go to his most extreme. What else would you expect from the director of films like Love Exposure and Antiporno?
Oftentimes, when a filmmaker established working in non-English films makes their transition to their first English-language project we see them get filtered through the Hollywood system, resulting in a movie that feels like an anonymous pile of sludge. You think about notorious flops like 2007’s The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel) or 2010’s The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), and it’s difficult to remember that they came from renowned international directors. Prisoners of the Ghostland will never be mistaken for being anything other than a Sion Sono movie, through and through.
A warped interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”, Cage literally plays a character named Hero (take that, Tenet), an outlaw who in the opening scene robs a bank with his companion Psycho (played by none other than The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes) and is imprisoned for it. He’s released by The Governor (Bill Moseley, doing his best Will Forte impression), a dastardly criminal who enlists Hero to return his adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), a woman who escaped the Governor’s clutches and has gone missing. The Governor rigs Hero up with a leather bodysuit equipped with explosives that will go off if Hero even thinks about hitting a woman, doing anything sexual with a woman, or if he doesn’t fulfill his mission within five days.
This sets Hero off on his journey, a quest that finds him interacting with a menagerie of bizarre factions, from nuclear waste zombies to a whole town dedicated to not letting the clock on their watchtower turn because they think that something horrible will happen if the time is told. Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t for everyone, and especially those unfamiliar with Sono’s work might not be able to get on its wavelength. For fans of the filmmaker though, and the uninitiated who didn’t realize they were missing out, this is going to be one heck of an enjoyable ride.
With a pinch of Kurosawa, a dollop of Mad Max, and a dash of Leone, Sono throws everything at the wall here and lets the audience decide whether they want to be along for the ride or not. Back in 2019, when the film was first gearing up for shooting, Sono had a heart attack that almost killed him, and halted production for almost the entire year. When he felt ready to go back to work, Prisoners of the Ghostland remained first on his to do list, and this feels like a movie made by a guy who is truly holding nothing back. It takes a lot of guts to stage a scene where an entire town spontaneously breaks into song after seeing Nicolas Cage’s testicles (not the last time Cage’s genitalia will feature in the movie), but Sono isn’t afraid of anything here. Whether you like the movie or not, this is entirely his vision.